Tuesday, 18 October 2005

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life – Nick Lane ****

I am all in favour of giving popular science books titles that grab the attention – so three cheers to Nick Lane for the title of this book, even though it does make it distinctly embarrassing to read on the train to work, risks a review like this being banned by parental controls, and even in the bowdlerised version we put into Amazon’s search (Power Suicide Lane) has an ominous ring to it. Never mind, though – because I defy anyone (who doesn’t know about mitochondria in detail already) to read this book and not come out amazed by the incredible subtly, complexity and downright unlikeliness of the mechanisms of biological construction.
The subject at the heart of this fat book is a fascinating one: mitochondria, the energy source of the cells of animals and plants, a vital part of every one of us, yet far back in history, an invader from the outside – a once separate, symbiotic entity that has became an essential part of our cells’ functioning.
Unless you are already steeped in the details of how eukaryotic cells work, this book will open your eyes to the almost incredible processes going on. We’re used to mitochondria being referred to as the “powerhouses” of the cell, but exploring that process causes as much amazement now as it did for the scientists who discovered it – most of whom stubbornly refused to believe the man who worked out the fiendishly clever process by which energy is amassed by the mitochondria. Perhaps most wonderful of all is the way that the energy production machine doesn’t just work by chemical processes, or even chemical and electrical processes, but also has a literal molecular motor that turns on an axle as it makes (or breaks) the energy store ATP.
And that’s not all – Lane doesn’t just describe this aspect of the mitochondria’s impact on our lives and being, but shows how the mitochondria’s pivotal role results in ever-so-slightly significant results like the reason for ageing and death (the suicide in the title is cell death, not an ability of mitochondria to turn us into lemmings), and the existence of sex as a means of reproduction. Yes – mitochondria have effectively influenced multi-celled organisms in the direction of this form of reproduction. It somehow doesn’t seem so remarkable, once you’ve read this book, that children’s author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote a story where someone’s mitochondria are in danger of destroying their “host”.
The only bad thing about the book is the tendency to excessive length and the author’s desire to make breakthrough comments – it would have been shorter and more to the point if Lane had stuck to telling us the amazing story of mitochondria without dwelling on who is wrong about what. Of course there’s no definitive story, but he can’t resist having digs at biologists he disagrees with. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that biology has only recently emerged from stamp collecting to become a science (to seriously mangle Rutherford’s famous remark, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”) that those who write about biology can’t resist personal attacks in their books. To be fair, though, Lane avoids the vehemence of the likes of Daniel Dennett.
Without doubt, of all the essential aspects of life, mitochondria are the least well understood by the general public . This book opens up the secrets with an obvious delight from Lane that the readers are likely to share. Recommended.
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Review by Jo Reed

Saturday, 15 October 2005

The Gecko’s Foot – Peter Forbes *****

The great thing about reviewing popular science is that there’s always something new coming along. Just when you begin to think that every book being published is about the origins of human beings or some aspect of human development, out pops a gem like The Gecko’s Foot. And it’s no ordinary gem, it’s a brilliant one.
Peter Forbes proves an excellent expositor of the science behind some of nature’s most remarkable capabilities and the efforts to produce technology that doesn’t so much mimic those capabilities as use an understanding of the physical effects involved to inspire wonderful technological possibilities. Most of these technologies are still to be fully developed, though two are fully commercial – the familiar Velcro and its imitators, inspired by the stickiness of a burr, and more amazing self-cleaning materials like paint and glass that dirt simply roll off – given a kickstart by the ability of lotus leaves to repel water and mud.
The gecko’s foot of the title is one of the most remarkable. There’s no gluey stickiness to the gecko’s foot, nor does it use suckers or some strange muscular ability – you can detach the part of the foot that gives it the ability to walk up plate glass (harmlessly to the creature – it re-grows like hair) and use it to make “gecko tape” that sticks to pretty well anything – instead it relies on a tiny force at the nano-level, multiplied up by the use of a vast number of tiny surface contacts. Joining attempts to produce an artificial gecko effect you’ll come across the possibility of making super spider silk (in one attempt from the milk of genetically modified goats), the amazing capabilities of photonic materials, inspired by natural irridescence and providing amazing optical capabilities from a net of nanoscopic holes, plus technology that attempts to reproduce a fly’s uncanny ability to move through the air any which way, and more. It’s mind boggling and brilliant.
The only problem with the book, which isn’t entirely trivial, but is overwhelmed by the delight of the content, is that Forbes can wax just a bit too lyrical about the wonders of nature’s “engineering”. The first, introductory chapter basically says “isn’t nature wonderful” with the odd nod in the direction of ancient Eastern wisdom for 28 pages, and is much too long. He’s fine when he’s talking about the science, but there is a distinct tendency to move into waffle mode when, for instance, referring to the capabilities of the lotus plant to shed water and dirt he says: “There is a school of thought that science has still to rediscover the greater wisdom of the Ancients. In the case of the lotus they are right. In ancient Eastern cultures the lotus’s immaculate emergence from muddy water was more than noticed: the plant became a symbol of the triumph of enlightenment over the dross of earthly life.”
Well, yes, but frankly, so what? How much science or practical engineering did said Ancients derive from the lotus’s self-cleaning capability? None. There’s no wisdom to rediscover here – delightful though the symbolism might be. You might as well try to derive science from the West’s symbolism of the dove as a sign of peace. There is no connection between the fact that we can use the amazing capabilities of the natural world to inspire new technology and pretty symbolism.
Luckily, though, this attempt to get in touch with one’s navel is largely limited to the introduction, and hence we can still honestly award the book a well-deserved five stars. When he sticks to the science and technology, the writing is excellent and the topic is wonderful. This has to be one of the best popular science books of 2005. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 14 October 2005

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking (with Leonard Mlodinow) ****

When the original Brief History of Time came out in 1988 it caused a sensation. It was the book to have on your shelves (though there was a certain tendency to admit to not having read it). And it was, justifiably, a great popular science book – yes it got hard towards the end, but it was well worth the effort.
The idea of Briefer History is to repeat the success of the original, but to do it in a more painless way. It’s a mixed success.
In part it delivers. It’s a sprightly canter through modern cosmology and the associated science, and it does it largely with flair and in a highly approachable fashion. After telling us the goal of science is a unified theory of everything (rather a doubtful proposition, but we’ll overlook that), we take a rapid trip from Newton through relativity to the expanding universe, the big bang, black holes, wormholes and all the traditional menagerie of the modern cosmologist. Because the book comes 17 years after its predecessor there’s a whole lot of new material to encompass, which is great, though it does mean there’s not quite the opportunity there might have been to go through the fundamentals from the first book but explain them in a more gentle fashion.
So the good news is it’s an effective look at the whole cosmological picture today – quantum gravity, strings and all (though dark matter/dark energy are rather skimmed over), it has the very positive endorsement of coming from a scientific superstar (the man appeared on Star Trek TNG – what can you say?), and it’s glossy enough to impress the most selective coffee table book buyer. And that’s enough to gain it four stars. But…
But there are aspects of the desperate attempt to become reader-friendly that get in the way in practice. It’s just a bit too glossy (even literally – the pages are shiny picture book pages, which are a little hard on the eye after a while). Leonard Mlodinow was presumably thrown in as editor to reign back any tendency Hawking might have to go off on riffs most of the readers couldn’t follow, but he has also homogenised the quite personal approach that was one of the strengths of Hawking’s original book. And, for a simple guide, there’s the classic error Feynman was always railing against of using labels as if they explain something – so we hear about electromagnetic fields, for instance, with no attempt to conquer the (admittedly difficult) problem of explaining what a field is.
Perhaps worst of the negative side are the illustrations – they smack of an out of control art director. The illustration, for instance, for the idea that people thought the world was a sphere because ships on the horizon appear masts first, shows a ship on the horizon… all in view. It’s a flat earth picture.
Incidentally, Hawking & Mlodinow perpetuate the myth that historically “it was common to find people who thought the earth was flat”. In fact, educated people have known it was a sphere continuously since the Ancient Greeks – the myth of medieval flat earth belief was devised in the 19th century as anti-Christian propaganda. Of course most people through history haven’t had any opinion on the matter, they’ve been to busy staying alive.
Other pictures are less easy to understand than a simple diagram would have been because of all the extra unnecessary detail – a good example is a “ping pong balls on a train” illustration where it’s very difficult to see what the point is. One diagram even verges on the offensive, in a demonstration of the increased attraction from a doubly heavy body by showing a man (Hawking as it happens) “attracted” to a pair of Marilyn Monroes.
This isn’t by any means a bad book. We’ve awarded it four stars and put it in our “near best” category because it will reach more people than arguably better books like Simon Singh’s Big Bang – even so, it’s a disappointment partly because of the ├╝bergloss, and partly because Hawking’s personality doesn’t come through as well as it does in the original.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Space Race – Deborah Cadbury *****

We have seen snippets of the story of the race to get people into space – and eventually to the moon – particularly about the way the US took in the Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun to kickstart its rocket programme – but this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see both sides of the story, and to uncover much more of the sometimes sordid details of what lay behind the race for space.
The first section opens up von Braun’s work in the Second World War. One small surprise is the deceitfulness of US intelligence, taking the essential information provided politely by the British, but failing to share anything in return and even rushing to grab documents from the British sector before their “allies” arrived. But the shocking impact comes from the realities of the slave labour camps used to build and man the secret factories for the V2 rocket weapons and the disgusting conditions the liberating armies found there.
Next comes the early days of the Russian side. Disadvantaged initially both by the rapid US removal of as much material as they could from what was about to become Russian controlled territory, and the Russians’ own terrible treatment of the man who would prove to be the driving force behind the Russian space programme, it’s quite amazing that they achieved as much as they did.
Once we get into the 1950s we are onto more familiar territory – but even so, this a wonderfully engaging telling of the US national shock that the Russians got there first with Sputnik, a Russian artificial satellite that seemed the equivalent of planting the red flag in space. Reinforced by being first to put a man (and woman) in orbit, it seemed only inevitable that Russia would also reach the moon first – and it’s real page turning stuff as we see just how close it was, and what a dramatic effort the US team put into getting the Apollo programme up and running. It’s nail biting all the way.
Although this is an excellent book, there was one small problem – it has been very shoddily proof read. A good number of pages have word break errors that cause irritation each time they come up. At one point two occur in sequential sentences: “The general was feeling benign for he had collected another important post: to his dis-tinguished list of titles had been added ‘General Commissioner for Turbojet Fighters.’ This required him to be away for a while he ex-plained, but von Braun was not to worry…”
But layout apart, this is a cracking story, well told. Those of us who can remember the excitement of the race for the moon can still recall that thrill – but we can now add a chilling context when we discover just how and where that expertise was born and bred. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 3 October 2005

Signor Marconi’s Magic Box – Gavin Weightman *****

Wireless communication is much more romantic than pumping information down a cable. There’s still something exciting about being able to access the internet from a wireless connection – and an even stronger thrill was felt towards the end of the nineteenth century when the shackles of wired telegraphy were removed to allow messages to fly through the ether thanks to Marconi’s work on radio.
All too rare in a popular science book, Gavin Weightman’s Signor Marconi’s Magic Box is a real page turner. It has all the right ingredients to become a Hollywood blockbuster. The young, dynamic Marconi, taking everyone by surprise both in his debonair looks and his command of English (though an Italian, Marconi had an Irish mother and did all his significant work in the UK and the USA). Then there’s the awesome impact of the new technology. The race to conquer huge technical barriers like getting a signal across the Atlantic. The fraudulent and dirty dealing companies that set up to make money out of the wireless boom without the capability of producing decent radio signals. And even a spot of love interest.
If you wanted to be really picky, there’s not a lot of science in the book – the story is driven by pure technology – but having said that, it’s almost a triumph of technology over the scientific knowledge of the day. From what everyone “knew” about “Hertzian waves”, the name at the time for radio waves, they should only be capable of transmission over a mile or two – yet Marconi was soon reaching a hundred and then thousands of miles, with the theory struggling to catch up with the reality that his experimental genius achieved.
What makes the book difficult to put down is the powerful draw of a race. This wasn’t a case of a sole inventor, tinkering away in his workshop. Many others were struggling to get wireless communication working, and Marconi knew it was only a matter of time before some other concern eclipsed his, putting immense pressure on him to achieve in a tight timescale. Though the earliest competitors missed the point, and tried to challenge his patents with devices that used induction to generate a current at the distance of a few yards, Marconi was under no illusion that he had the field to himself, and triumphed thanks to a combination of drive and personal initiative that would have made him a natural for Silicon Valley had he lived in the late twentieth century.
There is one slight moan. Michael Faraday is described as a chemist. Given that all the other remarks about Faraday concern his electrical and electromagnetic work, this seems an odd label. Faraday did make important contributions to chemistry, but it’s surely as a physical scientist that he is remembered.
However this is without doubt a book to treasure on a key development in the history of technology. Until recently Marconi was a well-known name, but as the companies he founded have all but disappeared, so too does Marconi himself fade away in the public consciousness – it’s a good thing this book is hear to keep his name alive.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Sunday, 2 October 2005

Monkeyluv – Robert M. Sapolsky ****

There’s something delightfully sardonic about Robert Sapolsky’s writing – you can imagine him penning some of the phrases in this enjoyable collection of articles with an eyebrow firmly raised. This is evident whether he is commenting on the film star Sandra Bullock (“One needs merely to examine her work – for the example the scene in which she first takes the wheel of the bus in Speed – to detect the undercurrents of this radicalism in her oeuvre”), or pointing out in a footnote that the habit of referring to animals making a choice to maximize the survival chance of their offspring (or whatever) isn’t referring to a conscious action, but is just a convention for describing unconscious tendencies, “agreed upon to keep everyone from falling asleep at conferences”.
Like most collections of articles, there can be a degree of overlap. The first set of six, for example, could easily be summarized as “it’s not all in the genes; it’s not all down to environment; it depends on the outcome of the particular combination of genes in a particular environment” (whatever “it” may be). In other words, it’s not nature, nor nurture, but the nature+nurture combo – which hopefully most of us knew already. (If you don’t, read Matt Ridley’s excellent Nature via Nurture). But each article makes the point in a different way, or triggered by a different event or piece of research, and Sapolsky’s ebullient style prevents the repetition from grating.
Next he moves on in a second section to the links between the body and the mind, from dreaming to parasites in the brain. In this part, as in the third and final section, which looks at the linkages (both ways) between society and human biology, there’s a more diverse and perhaps more satisfying collection of articles. Some are quite tightly focussed on a specific scientific point. Others are very broad, like the article originally published in Men’ Health that explains why a woman arguing with her partner might be more likely to bring up past demeanours when the man thought that they had got over a problem and were back to a positive state. But whatever the topic, they are entertaining and insightful.
One minor criticism – the name of the book is not particularly helpful in giving a clue as to what it’s about (it’s also works badly in bookstore search engines, as they don’t find it looking for Monkey Luv).
Altogether a very worthwhile and elegantly written collection of articles that lives up to Sapolsky’s subtitle “lessons on our lives as animals”.
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Review by Brian Clegg