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Showing posts from July, 2008

A History of Molecular Biology – Michael Morange ***

Michel Morange’s efforts in the history of molecular biology come to life in his appropriately named book, The History of Molecular Biology. While we take for granted now that DNA is the genetic material, this conclusion stemmed from many experiments and this is where the book starts. We all know the progress made since then with things like cloning and DNA amplification (polymerase chain reaction). Michel Morange guides us on a historical trip through these developments and even takes a look into the future. The book is not organized in a traditional chronological order. Rather it is divided into themes such as “The chemical nature of the gene” or “Deciphering the genetic code”. Within each theme, however, the events are outlined in chronological order. The strongest point of the book was to put the development of molecular biology into context. It provided an eye-opening view of the competition between various schools of thought and controversies about the discoveries. Its major wea…

The Buzz about Bees – Jürgen Tautz *****

On appearances, I expected this book to be either a picture book or a rather dull textbook – but it’s neither. It is absolutely fascinating. I confess I knew very little about bees before reading it, but a combination of beautiful, detail photographs and an insightful text means that the remarkable lives of these creatures are revealed in great detail. Particularly fascinating were both the complexity of the bees’ system, and the nature of the colony as a superorganism – in fact, the book is subtitled Biology of a superorganism. I know it’s not exactly news, the idea has been around for over 100 years, but I found the details of the concept that the whole colony is best considered as a single entity very exciting as it was something I’d never read about. The illustrations aren’t just pretty – they show, for example, the way a bee’s eyesight differs from our own when it is hunting for flowers. And the details of the function of the colony – like most people, for instance, I had heard …

Making Time – Steve Taylor ***

If you think of Albert Einstein you might come up with many things, but not necessarily jokes. Yet Einstein did once do a funny. He claimed that this was the abstract of a paper he once wrote: When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute – and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity. The journal he claimed it was published in was called Journal of Exothermic Science and Technology, and the full paper is supposed to describe him attempting to undertake the experiment in question. (The film star Paulette Goddard, introduced to Einstein by mutual friend Charlie Chaplin, was the pretty girl in question.) I have only ever seen this paper referred to as a genuine, if humorous, academic contribution, though the way that the initials of the spurious sounding journal spell out JEST might suggest that Einstein made the whole thing up. Funny though this may be, it reflects an underlying truth – time runs away with us whe…

Upgrade Me: our amazing journey to Human 2.0 – Brian Clegg ****

I’ve read a lot of books about evolution – but Brian Clegg’s book takes a startling look at the way we have gone beyond evolution. Far beyond. Upgrade Me is about the way that human beings have used our brains to exceed our basic capabilities. Tellingly, it’s not all about the high tech stuff that springs to mind when we think about enhanced humans. Clegg points out that part of the inspiration for the book was going on a long walk on a hot day. For an animal to evolve the capability to survive in a very dry environment with no water around for days, would take millions of years of evolution. We just go out and buy a water bottle. Clegg’s thesis is that our urge to upgrade was inspired by the development of the ability to see beyond the present. It was the first time our ancestors could think about the future, and wonder ‘what if?’ From that came our awareness of what could go wrong and the inspiration to go much further than evolution, which biologists will tell you effectively stopp…

Six Degrees: Our future on a hotter planet – Mark Lynas ****

This is an important book. Books about the horrors of global warming are sometimes referred to as climate change pornography, because they titillate with the frisson of fear about what is going to happen to us – I don’t agree with this label, but if it existed, this would be hardcore. Mark Lynas describes simply and graphically what would happen if the Earth went through one degree (Celsius) of warming, two degrees, three degrees and so on, through to six degrees. Basing all his predictions on different scientific studies, he explains ruthlessly what will happen to different parts of the world as ice melts, seas rise, temperatures climb and rainfall dries up in some places and becomes torrential elsewhere. This is important, because the temperature rises of themselves don’t sound particularly frightening. We are all familiar what happens when the temperature rises locally by a few degrees – it’s a nice sunny day. We have a lovely time. Yet if Lynas is right, with five degrees we will …