• What You’re Reading: Of Flus, Da Vinci and Hillbillies


    Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this winter. Add your own favorites in the comments or send your review to scope@aao.org 

    From J. Kemper Campbell, MD
    Pale Rider by Laura Spinney is a frightening book examining how the influenza pandemic of 1918 affected the subsequent course of world history. The ramifications of this worldwide epidemic, in an era before viruses had been discovered and when public health education was minimal, lingered into the 21st century. One third of the world's population caught the flu and nearly 100 million people died. Individuals who plan to skip their annual flu vaccination should first read this book.

    From Tom Harbin, MD, MBA
    Ever wonder how the rich and powerful get that way? Or how the crooks and dictators get away with it? In The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money, German investigative journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederick Obermaier tell you how. After a source in a Panamanian law firm leaked a trove of data to these journalists, they had to engage a huge team around the world to investigate. This book spells out the details. Through multiple shell companies, unknown directors and legal help from European prime ministers, international dictators, kings, celebrities, aristocrats and criminals, the conspirators deceived entire countries and robbed them of tax revenue.

    The revelations in the book caused the prime minister of Iceland, amongst many others, to resign his position. You will find respect for investigative journalists and governmental authorities who work to keep these things from happening. A fascinating book, highly recommended.

    From Samuel Masket MD
    J. D. Vance’s remarkable autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis spent countless weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In it, he recounts the odyssey of a young boy growing up in Appalachia where jobs were scarce but alcoholism and opiate addiction common. Those factors had great effect on his mother, and in turn, on him. Owing to innate intelligence, support of an older sister and perhaps more to the guidance of his grandparents, his grandmother in particular, Vance found his way through school, to the military, to college and to Yale Law School.

    His story alone would make the book very valued reading. However, his keen observations of the effects of factory closings, international trade pacts and failed government programs give great insight into the right-leaning politics of the rust belt and why, perhaps, Hilary Clinton fared poorly in that area during the 2016 presidential election.

    From Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD
    I began Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson with the highest expectations. I loved Isaacson’s biographies of Steve Jobs and especially of Albert Einstein. But this time, Isaacson let me down. Fundamentally, he was wrong about saying that Leonardo da Vinci was the first scientist. Trying to prove this point, Isaacson got many things wrong.

    Science is about measurement and using measurement to test the hypothesis. But Leonardo, genius as he was and a great artist and broad thinker, never attempted to test his many theories with science. And his so-called engineering attempts were actually flights of fantasy propelled by his extraordinary skills as an artist (and his penchant for staging performances). His engineering never worked because he ignored the science part.

    Hence, Leonardo’s flying machines or his giant crossbow were physically impossible though they were very cool looking. Leonardo did not understand scaling. He once alluded to the mathematics of squares and cubes which he didn’t understand. A three-dimensional object made 20 times greater in scale will weigh 8,000 times more (you have to take the cube for 3 dimensions), though the strength of its parts only increases by 400 (you take the square for the cross-sectional resilience) such that it would collapse under its own weight.

    Leonardo knew some of this from bad experiences that forced him to give up building most of his large flying machines. But he did run a type of scam by getting patronage from a pope, a king and several rich autocrats, with the promise that he could build machines of war with which they could win battles. None made it to a working prototype.

    Leonardo was also embarrassed by the complete failures of his water projects and other machines because of his failure to understand scaling. Leonardo was also wrong about a number of natural phenomena he sought to explain, like why the sky was blue (he incorrectly said that water mist at the horizon refracted red light to make it blue).

    This is all fine as even geniuses can be wrong; especially in the 15th century. But it’s a shame that Isaacson still thinks Leonardo was right, failing to understand the difference between light refraction, scattering and interference. I don’t blame Leonardo, but I do blame Isaacson for trying to prove his scientific claim in a most non-scientific way. Let’s celebrate Leonardo for his magnificent art, not a scientific method he failed to practice.

    From M. Bruce Shields, MD
    The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore tells the story in a historical novel that takes considerable poetic license, but is based on factual history. As such, it is both entertaining and informative and a good read.

    In the final decades of the 19th century, the world was getting brighter (not socio-politically, although an argument might be made for that). It was becoming brighter especially in metropolitan areas like New York City, because gas lamps were giving way to electric lights.

    Within this seminal moment of world history, two titans of industry waged a nasty patent battle: George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. It became known as the “current wars,” pitting Edison’s direct-current against Westinghouse’s alternating-current. A third player in the drama was the brilliant, but eccentric inventor, Nikola Tesla, who held an A/C patent that Westinghouse licensed. The basic question in the series of patent suits was who invented the lightbulb and held the right to power the country.