The Public Health Blog’s Holiday 2012 Reading List

HeLa cells – a tribute to Viet’s holiday book selection (they look seasonally appropriate, right?)

After great first posts from all five of our authors, we at the Public Health Blog are signing off today for the holidays. Yipee! But first, we’d like to leave our new readers with a bit of holiday entertainment.

First off, some health science journals with clever editors publish holiday reading sections in their December issues. Satirical and pithy, the Canadian Medical Association Journal is a great example: in the current issue, Wheatley-Price et al (2012) have analysed how the end of the Maya calendar on Dec. 21, 2012 will affect survival curves for currently on-going clinical trials. When simulating their own general population survival curve, they found that:

“Oddly, despite censoring for major known sources of bias (e.g., astronauts currently aboard the international space station, as well as zombies, the undead, the Grateful Dead, Dungeons and Dragons players, men who have read Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar beings likely to be unaffected by the apocalypse), the obliteration group does not fall to 0. We have dubbed this slow rise in the obliteration curve the “zombie repopulation.”

Check out the full issue here.

Another notable example is the BMJ. This year’s Christmas issue is not out yet, but notable mentions in previous years include a retrospective cohort study examining the “27 club” hypothesis that famous musicians are at increased risk of death at age 27, an attempted systematic review of whether parachute use prevents death from falling (a great jab at critics of observational studies), and an experimental study of the perceived health and attractiveness of sleep-deprived people.

For those wanting a meatier read, we’ve compiled a short list of popular health and science books we enjoy. So adjust your glasses and get your mind freak on – here is the PLOS Public Health Holiday 2012 Reading List:

Atif recommends:  The Signal and the Noise: why so many predictions fail – but some don’t by Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise is a book about Bayesian statistics. It rose to prominence when the author, Nate Silver, correctly predicted all 50 States in the 2012 US Presidential Election, despite many pundits describing the race as “too close to call”. Building off the success of books like Moneyball and Silver’s own blog FiveThirtyEight, the book provides an eye-opening look at how Bayesian statistics can have wide spread uses and help us separate actual events (the signal) from random occurrences (the noise).

Viet recommends: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally had a chance to sit down and read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. For those of you who don’t know, this book is not only about the HeLa cell culture line that really transformed medical research but also the personal story of Henrietta Lacks, from whom the cells were, for lack of a matter phrase, harvested–unbeknownst to her and her family. The book is well written and the science is explained very clearly, but I think its real strength is that the tale of Henrietta Lacks is told on the backdrop of racial issues and bioethics (or lack thereof) coupled with a historical perspective of medical science and the lingering effects of this saga on her family to this day.

Beth recommends: The Wild Life of our Bodies by Rob Dunn

The Wild Life of our Bodies is about humans’ ecological relationships with parasites, microbes, even predators, and how their absence can affect our health. Rob Dunn, a biologist, contends that our removal of ourselves from animal life has played a role in fostering the negative health outcomes plaguing our societies, such as diabetes, autism, and autoimmune disorders. As a thoroughly researched and engaging meditation on the consequences of our increasingly “clean” world separated from nature, this book is worth a read.

Lindsay recommends: The Richness of Life by Stephen Jay Gould

One of the most iconic scientists of our time, Stephen Jay Gould was an enthusiastic Darwinist, major critic of scientific racism, and a simply enchanting writer. The Richness of Life is a selection of the best science essays he produced in his prolific career. Gould liked to “sneak up on generalities, rather than assault them head-on” (Gould 1981) when writing, and this tactic is obvious in The Richness of Life: essays with titles such as “The Ladder and the Cone: Iconographies of Progress”, “The Diet of Worms and the Defenestration of Prague”, and “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” cover his unique and ground breaking takes on evolutionary theory, sociobiology, racism, and religion.

Jason recommends: The Enculturated Gene: Sickle Cell Health Politics and Biological Difference in West Africa by Duana Fullwiley

How would you deal, if you had a painful disease, but it remained “officially invisible”? Fullwiley’s The Enculturated Gene is about how people “make-do,” cope, and improvise care for themselves and those they love, when they have little other choice. It’s a book about sickle cell anemia in Senegal and how genetic explanations overwrote self-care heroics to obscure the very nature of this disorder. Don’t just take my word for it: Junot Díaz recommended the book to New York Magazine “for the hard-core braniacs.” Sound like anyone we know, PLOS?

Important note: We’ve read these books on our own accord and are not receiving any compensation or incentives from publishers.

We hope you enjoy! These books have brought each of us great reading pleasure, and hopefully they give you a little window into each of our personalities.

And to close, here is our final salute to you, our readers, for the holiday season (NSFW because of sound).

Happy holidays, and see you all on January 3rd, 2013 with a post from Viet!


–  Atif, Viet, Beth, Lindsay, and Jason


Photo credit: Matthew Daniels, Wellcome Images



Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Wheatley-Price, Paul, Hutton, Brian, and Mark Clemons. 2012. The Mayan Doomsday’s effect on survival outcomes in clinical trials. CMAJ 184 (18): 2021-22.

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One Response to The Public Health Blog’s Holiday 2012 Reading List

  1. I still don’t know how you talked us into making that Elf dance thing. Apparently you’re very persuasive by email :-/

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