The Deeper Genome, John Parrington
I should have reviewed this when I read it, but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle somewhere. I’m left with only general impressions and the knowledge that I intended to give it a four star rating. That alone should tell you it’s decent pop-science, delving into the genome and trying to give the reader a deeper understanding of it — not just the basic string of AACTGGA or whatever, but more detail. The first chapters are more basic, of course, giving the reader a bit of a background against which to evaluate all the new research.
I recall it being clear and easy to read, and where it went into epigenetics, microRNAs and piRNAs, I was fascinated. Some of this stuff, it only touches on, because it’s complex or not fully researched yet. Still a good read!
One Renegade Cell, Robert Weinberg
One Renegade Cell is a classic by now in terms of pop science books which explain cancer for an interested but non-specialist audience. It’s a little out of date, and some of the hopes Weinberg talks about in terms of treatments to come haven’t come to pass at all. But the basics are still true, and you can get a good basic understanding of how cancer works by reading it. It’s clear and accessible, and I didn’t find it prone to fear-mongoring either — sometimes when someone is writing about cancer, it seems like they can’t help but try to scare the reader silly.
One Renegade Cell doesn’t try to mystify cancer or play up its impact; the impact of cancer pretty much speaks for itself. It’s a solid read, even though it’s out of date now.
The Making of the Fittest, Sean B. Carroll
The Making of the Fittest is really about that subtitle: “DNA and the ultimate forensic record of evolution”. It’s all about showing that DNA holds the record of evolution, and essentially proves what is difficult to see in real time. There are some good examples, but overall I found myself wondering if anyone who wasn’t already convinced would become convinced by this book. DNA isn’t exactly a secret, and the fact that many species share DNA isn’t either, and yet people still doubt that that means anything.
It’s a good enough read if you’re looking for examples, though, and good if you really want to get to grips with examples of convergent evolution, too.
Why Dinosaurs Matter, Kenneth Lacovara
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 19th September 2017
The idea of this book is pretty much encapsulated in the words from the summary: “What can long-dead dinosaurs teach us about our future? Plenty.” It’s the story of the dinosaurs as a highly successfully set of creatures who ruled the world — for a time. It’s also the story of their decline and fall, so to speak, and the lessons we can learn from them. Also, a reminder that a penguin is very literally a dinosaur, just as we’re very literally primates.
There’s nothing revelatory here if you’re into dinosaurs, but if you’re looking for something more general than David Hone’s The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, something to get you up to date on current dinosaur scholarship, this isn’t a bad place to start. And I agree with Lacovara: dinosaurs shouldn’t be viewed as synonymous with something obsolete. They ruled the world for a reason.
The Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin
I came out of reading this book with a pleasing illusion that I understood something of the state of modern physics. Smolin’s style worked for me in explaining things well enough that, for once, I wasn’t left boggling and having to reread pages over and over again to cram the concepts into my head. Perhaps it helps that he’s not an inveterate supporter of string theory, and can explain where it doesn’t work as an explanation for our universe and why — sometimes, it helps to know where concepts break down as much as it helps to know where they succeed.
Part of the book isn’t just about physics at all, though: it’s about the progress of science in general, and how science progresses. I’m not sure Smolin really gets at anything profound here, but when it comes to the specifics of critiquing why physics has come to a standstill, he genuinely cares and genuinely wants to solve the issue. The way he presents it, it’s clear that it’s time for people to re-evaluate string theory and accept that quite possibly it will never yield the answers we’re looking for.
Some days after reading it, being me, I can no longer explain string theory to anyone else, but I can explain why it doesn’t work, so I got something out of this! And I more or less enjoyed letting it turn my brain inside out, too.
15 Million Degrees, Professor Lucie Green
If you want to know all the things we know or guess about the sun, this is definitely the book for you. Lucie Green isn’t just a science communicator — she’s actually doing the research, so she knows what the current questions are, what the latest research is, and all the history of how we came to know what we know. Her enthusiasm is plain throughout, and she does a good job of describing both the actual physical events of the sun, and the sensation of observing and understanding them.
If you’re not hugely into physics, you might find that a few chapters do start to drag. But for the most part, it’s a fascinating book — and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know.
A Crack in Creation, Jennifer Doudna, Samuel Sternberg
If you haven’t heard of CRISPR before, chances are you’ll be hearing of it again pretty soon. It’s starting to be used in clinical trials to edit the genes of human embryos, and it’s already being used in countless research projects. It’s an amazing tool which could completely revolutionise gene editing, allowing very precise changes to be made with very little unintended impact. Doudna is one of the people who has been involved in developing CRISPR and recognising its potential, and her book covers exactly how it works and the potential it has — and some of the philosophical questions around how we’re going to use it.
The explanations of how CRISPR works are perfect: clear and precise, along with diagrams which help elucidate the processes described. Even if you already know a little about CRISPR, this account will probably help you understand just how it works and why it’s so revolutionary.
As far as the ethics/philosophy goes, Doudna says nothing particularly revolutionary. (It’s very much framed as her book, despite Sternberg’s involvement.) What struck me especially was her conviction that this is a decision that has to be made by people in general, not just scientists — it’s something I agree with very much, and why I have a science blog of my own.
An important read, I think — even if you’re not hugely into science/gene editing.
Just Six Numbers, Martin Rees
This is a little out of date now, and some of the predictions are almost adorably wrong at this point — that we would understand dark matter and dark energy, and that we’d have a unified Theory of Everything explaining how all the forces we know of are tied together. But this book is still useful in explaining, in clear and simple terms, why exactly people say the universe has been “fine-tuned”. It’s not the most in-depth treatment out there, but I think it’d be very good for getting to grips with the basics.
In summary: there are several numbers underlying the universe which are constant, and they are very precisely definable down to multiple decimal places… and if you change them in any way, you make our existence as we know it impossible. There are problems with this, of course; life doesn’t have to look exactly like us to be viable, and of course we’re in a world that is perfectly tuned for us to exist. That doesn’t, in and of itself, prove anything. I know people often use it to support the idea of multiple universes, all varying slightly — but something can be made just once and be utterly unique and turn out to be perfect for something, even if you don’t make multiples.
This is, honestly, why I find physics so frightening. It’s all so terribly unlikely, and we don’t understand it, and against all this it becomes very apparent, to my mind, how small and alone and temporary each human being is.
It’s also fascinating, even for those who prefer biology as a science, like one you could probably name…
The Vaccine Race, Meredith Wadman
I really enjoyed this, and I read it at a very opportune moment — at exactly the same time as I had my lab skills residential school in Milton Keynes. The techniques described were mostly not the same, but there was some crossover, and it was great to think about how I might one day contribute to the same science, if I go that route. My only quibbles with this book were with the sometimes unfocused feel; there’s a lot of scientists which it tracks quite closely, and sometimes I wondered how relevant all of the details are.
It’s also got a bit of a divide between the WI-38 cells, which were used to make vaccines, and the vaccines themselves; there’s a lot of focus on the cell line, and sometimes that wasn’t directly relevant to the vaccines. It’s interesting stuff, particularly when it comes to the commercialisation of science, but it didn’t always feel like it fit with the story of the vaccine race. In that sense, it sometimes felt like two almost-separate books. It’s also odd because Wadman clearly champions Hayflick, the creator of the cell line, despite his rather indefensible actions — dismissing them as being due to ‘stubbornness’. Sorry, but if you have a legal contract and you’ve agreed to it, you can’t just forget about it. If you object to the way things are being sorted out, you don’t abscond with the cell line — you get a lawyer.
It doesn’t sound like Hayflick meant any harm, though I am conscious of Wadman’s bias there, and it’s probably true that he deserved better from the use of his cell line — but even so, he was not in the right.
Other than that, there are also some very worthwhile discussions of the ethics of vaccine production. They were often tested on vulnerable people who couldn’t consent, and the WI-38 cell line came originally from the lung cells of an aborted foetus. It’s worth remembering these facts, even with the undoubted good done by the availability of vaccines.
Definitely recommend this one.
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Jim Al-Khalili, Johnjoe McFadden
I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now, though also somewhat afraid of the idea — quantum biology?! Do y’all have to bring quantum (which I don’t understand) into biology (which I mostly do understand)? How rude! But this book is really clear about the concepts it describes, and there’s nothing too mind-boggling in it. Sometimes, in fact, the patience the authors had with explaining a concept I already understood was a little frustrating — but will open the book up to a bigger audience.
Do they have a point? Yes, I think so. I’m not sure it’s proven that quantum effects have a major impact on all the biological processes they discuss, but it seems pretty clear from the research they reference that quantum effects are there and might even solve some of the problems we still have in biology.
More research is needed, though — and this is one field you won’t find me trying to join, I think! It’s fascinating stuff, but I’m not a quantum fan.