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.
Babylon, Paul Kriwaczek
Not that long ago, I abandoned Gwendolyn Leick’s book Mesopotamia because of the overwrought sentences and the weird, unsourced assertions, like this:
“Perhaps the fountains and pools in Middle Eastern buildings of much later centuries retain a faint memory of the old lagoon in the very south of Mesopotamia.”
And yet, I pick this up, and in the second chapter…:
“Remembered too was the Apsu, the sacred lake from which [a god] emerged, referenced by a basin of fresh water installed in every later Mesopotamian temple — and perhaps also, long after, still remember in the Wudu, or washing, pool of the Islamic mosque and maybe even in the baptismal font of the Christian church.”
There’s no source in the further reading for this. I know that much of what we think we know about Mesopotamia must be speculative, but this repeated assertion leaves me with so many questions. It’s not my area, really, but I can’t help but want to point out that fresh water is easy to conceptualise as sacred because it’s so necessary to human life. By this point in the book, maybe two solid archaeological finds have been referenced, along with a handful of later texts. In the same way, Krizwaczek links the Virgin Mary to the goddess Inanna via Inanna’s symbol of the cow shed:
“The Queen of Heaven of the Christian church would one day give birth to her baby saviour in a distant but direct descendant of the mother-goddess’s cow-byre.”
This feels more like imaginative recreation than history. It’s all very pretty to read, but I’m wary of these links. English literature makes such claims of links between literature which the authors never thought of themselves; sometimes the link is elegant and pretty and makes sense, and yet means absolutely nothing, because it wasn’t actually really made in the author’s mind. So too, perhaps, with religion. I’d at least like to see some solid references; even popular history has room for sources and referencing, even if in a supplementary chapter 90% of readers don’t look at.
The book is pleasant enough to read, but marred by the fact that I don’t know how much credence to give to any of it.
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.
The Real Lives of Roman Britain, Guy de la Bedoyere
I picked this up mostly because Guy de la Bedoyere worked on Time Team, which I loved as a kid and now watch sometimes with my wife. He was their Roman expert, or one of them, so that’s a pretty good endorsement (and it amused me to notice a blurb from Tony Robinson on the front!). The problem, as ever, is that there isn’t really that much material for the “real people” of Roman Britain, because there’s no rich written record to refer to. There’s scraps — an inscription here, a letter there, an eloquent tomb — but often de la Bedoyere is pressed to make more than a paragraph or two of the material he has. It’s about real people, alright, but there’s so little we know about them, that doesn’t necessarily add to what we know.
Which is not to say it’s a bad book; it’s solidly based on the archaeology and records we have, and there are some fascinating glimpses at life in Roman Britain. But it’s less a full picture than a glance through a door that’s open just a crack.
Mind you, I’m sure de la Bedoyere feels closer to the people he writes about than we do, reading about it — he’s examined the evidence first hand, perhaps worked on the excavations. This might be more satisfying if you’re in that position, too!
Wicked Plants, Amy Stewart
Wicked Plants is one of those books which seems, to me, more like the sort of thing you dip into, flip through, and ultimately probably leave on the bookshop shelf. The illustrations are quite pretty, and some of the facts are entertaining, but all in all it becomes a list of facts, grouped into categories of varying usefulness/interest.
If you’re fascinated by all the ways the natural world can kill us, this might well be your thing — and if you love plants in general, and spend a lot of time gardening, it might be a good idea to know the baddies hiding in the hedgerows, too. But for me it was more of a curiosity, and I only finished it because it happened to be what I had on hand when I couldn’t sleep.
Incognito, David Eagleman
This book is mostly a very readable account of some of the standard weird things your brain does, but it does contain a very valuable discussion of a serious nature, too. David Eagleman shows through examples how often our behaviour is ruled by factors we don’t control — things in our brain that we may not even know about, but which nonetheless change us. And of course that poses a big question when it comes to criminal behaviour: can we be blamed for “choosing” to do something when we only “choose” to do so because we have a brain tumour?
He gives a decent amount of space to a discussion of how the criminal justice system should work given that we know this, and while other reviewers think that what he suggests impinges on civil liberties, I’m not so sure. By my reading, he’s suggested that people can either just sit in prison for as long as necessary, to remove them from society, or they can voluntarily choose to undergo therapies to help them change their behaviour. If that doesn’t work, then they may have to remain incarcerated because otherwise they would reoffend. As long as it is a choice, I don’t see why such an intervention would be inethical — at least no more inethical than letting someone rot in prison for the rest of their life. There are some people for whom that’d be worse than death, after all.
At any rate, this book might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable as regards how much free will you have and what your brain is doing behind your back. Still worth a read! I’d probably rate it higher if it had more info that’s new to me.
Life Unfolding, Jamie T. Davies
Well, now I feel silly that I didn’t read this before my human biology exam! It describes, in very careful detail, how the human body builds itself, beginning at the point an egg is fertilised. It explains processes like cell division and gastrulation, and generally manages to make the whole complex process comprehensible. Davies doesn’t get hung up on quantum biology or how consciousness is generated, but instead focuses on the physical processes by which the human body grows.
You may not find this entirely satisfying, because Davies very much relies on the fact that small events — a chemical gradient, a lack of symmetry in a cell — seem to prompt massive changes. If you feel (like this reviewer) that it’s quite impossible for all this to happen just by a number of useful proteins happening to bump into each other in a sea of proteins which won’t interact at all, you’ll find this unsatisfying. There seems to be no room for a guiding ghost in the machine. But that is the best understanding we have, I’m afraid — and as a biologist, it makes sense to me. Which is not to say that it’s all perfectly understood: it isn’t. Sometimes, we can’t do the experiments in a human context for ethical reasons. Sometimes, the data is just too difficult to obtain. But the fact remains that we do have a reasonable understanding of embryology, and that is described in this book.
I found it an easy and fascinating read, and would definitely recommend it if you have an interest. It doesn’t get too technical as far as I’m concerned (but take that with a pinch of salt, since I have admittedly studied human biology). At a couple of points I found it useful to look up relevant Khan Academy videos to get a differently-worded explanation of the same events, taken step by step, but that’s as much down to individual learning and teaching styles as anything.