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This is a little out of date now, and some of the predictions are almost adorably wrong at this point — that we would understand dark matter and dark energy, and that we’d have a unified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.
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.
Genomes and What To Make of Them, Barry Barnes, John Dupré
This book is from 2008, so in terms of the science and its impact on the world, it’s a bit behind the times. It’s still a good primer on how the world was changing from a fairly monolithic view on genes to an understanding of the whole genome, “junk” DNA included, and it covers some worthwhile discussions. I found it a bit dry and pedantic at times, though it doesn’t help that the science was well below the level I understand now.
It’s most worth it when it focuses on the implications of the new genomics and the technologies involved. But I might be inclined to say skip it and look for something more modern if you’re not super interested.
Personality, Daniel Nettle
I don’t quite see why this is part of the Oxford Landmark Science range. To me, it’s a relatively low level analysis of the factors that go into personality, much of which I’ve read elsewhere in other popular science books which aren’t so tightly focused. It’s not that it’s a bad book, or uninteresting; there are some things I didn’t know, and it’s interesting to see how Nettle explores the two sides to each of the main personality factors identified — the downside to being extroverted, for example, and the downside to ‘openness to experience’.
Still, none of it is revelatory, and he doesn’t spare much time for the criticisms of the whole idea of studying people’s personalities as if they’re a real thing you can test and measure. His conclusion is basically that of course you can, because you can obtain consistent data that falls into particular trends. I don’t think I disagree, but I’m sure there are more criticisms.
It’s an easy enough read, surprisingly light even for pop-sci.
Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People, Philip Ball
Although this is classed as ‘popular science’, more than half of it is essentially literary criticism. It’s all relevant to the kinds of anxieties humans have about artificial people, but if you’re here for cloning, IVF, gene editing, etc, then it’s pretty thin on that. I hadn’t thought about a lot of stuff in the way this book opens it up, but there was far too much waffling before it got to the actual science bit — I’d have enjoyed it more if it’d been marketed as literary criticism/history, or if there’d been more of the science stuff.
At the very least, Philip Ball writes clearly, and it’s not a chore to read except in that it wasn’t what I was hoping for. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit more holistic about the modern science around ‘making people’, including the myths and literature that inform and reveal our anxieties about it, then you’ll probably enjoy it.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, David Whitehouse
This book uses all kinds of insights from mineralogy and seismology to put together a picture of what the Earth’s composed of, layer by layer. Despite the author’s obvious enthusiasm, this isn’t one of my primary interests, and I did find my interest flagging at times — it seemed like some chapters were just unnecessarily dragged out and like he got off the point some of the time. Nonetheless, if this is the kind of science that enthuses you, it’s worth reading — it deals with the history of the study of our Earth as well as the straightforward facts about the composition of each layer.
The more I learn about all kinds of science, including Earth science, the happier I am. Even if it’s not my field, I’m glad I read this.
A Rough Ride to the Future, James Lovelock
I found Gaia interesting, and if not entirely in line with what I believe, still plausible; it’s obvious that the Earth’s ecosystems are governed by systems of feedback, and that sometimes that has had a stabilising effect — and that life continues to find a way to survive. From this book, it seems like Lovelock believes the ‘rough ride’ is mostly for humanity, ignoring the fact that we’ve severely thrown off natural systems, and that we’re not innocent in this. We’ve known we’re doing it for quite some time, and yet he sort of shrugs it off and says there’s no use feeling guilty. Well, guilt won’t fix the climate, but a sense of responsibility might help.
He’s right that humans have to change and adapt to the changing climate, but I’m not so sanguine that’s going to be enough for life to go on. I’m pretty sure bacteria and archaea will get along fine, but we’re decimating the ranks of amphibians, big mammals, sea creatures, etc. And he’s not always up on modern science: he still seems to believe, here, that the atmosphere can’t be more than about 25% oxygen without causing regular devastating fires. He’s wrong: we know the oxygen saturation has been much higher, and life went on — that’s why there were gigantic dragonflies; they couldn’t have survived in a lower-oxygen atmosphere.
While the Gaia theory has been influential, I think perhaps Lovelock should sit down and stop profiting by it. This book is rather rambling, at times even confused.