Thursday, 31 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 weakness is the lack of biographical material about the individual scientists, who I am sure were interesting people in their own rights. Another weakness is that the book was originally written in French and was translated by Matthew Cobb. I found that the translation was incomplete in that some of the French sentence structure remained, surprising since Cobb himself seems to be a very good writer and the author of delightful The Egg and Sperm Race.
Overall this book was very interesting and fun to read. I recommend it thoroughly to those unfamiliar with molecular biology, although this type of reader may have to do some research to clarify some of the concepts. I even more strongly recommend it to people who are familiar with molecular biology but who have not kept up. The book provides an excellent review of the material with the addition of the competitive context of the times.
Paperback:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

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 of the waggle dance (if only in the name of a honey beer), but hadn’t understood the complexities involved.
Although translated from German, the book still reads well. If I had any complaint it would be that the book hasn’t really got the structure and enticement of a popular science book – it is very much a collection of facts – but the subject is so fascinating this doesn’t matter. I was also surprised in such a modern book that there was no mention of the devastating death of so many bees that is causing concern at the moment – but that apart, it was one of the best popular science experiences I’ve had all year, doubly so because it was unexpected.
Unfortunately the book is priced rather high in the UK, but I would still encourage you to get this one – it is excellent.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 28 July 2008

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 when we aren’t concentrating on a regular beat, and that is at the heart of this book.
The trouble is, there is very little other significant content. Steve Taylor tells us how we subjectively speed up and slow down time, and for me this book definitely slowed down time because there was so little in it – it was the classic example of a magazine article stretched out to fill a whole book. It didn’t matter how much Taylor padded out the simple observations that some things we do make time go faster for us, and some things slower – whether by giving these concepts grand sounding names as the “Laws of Psychological Time” – the fact is it there’s very little substance here.
It gets even worse when Taylor attempts to bring in science, because the result is all too reminiscent of the way pseudo-scientists use a few scientific terms to try to dress up hokum, but get the science just a bit wrong. I’m not qualified to say how up-to-date his psychological ideas are – though the dependence on such a Freudian term as “the ego” may suggest they are dated, but when he strays into physics and cosmology, things certainly go to pieces. Taylor doesn’t make the classic mistake of thinking Einstein was serious, and Einsteinian relativity is concerned with subjective time, but he does make plenty of comments about relativity, whether it’s the fact that cause and effect can be reversed (true if you travel faster than light, but not hugely common otherwise) or saying that relativity means that time flow varies, an observation that is only true when observing someone in relative motion to yourself and not in the cases he is talking about. This suggests he has only a faint grasp of what Einstein was on about.
In just one paragraph, he makes it clear his ideas on cosmology are way out of date, getting the dating of the big bang over 2 billion years out by modern reckoning (what’s a couple of billion years?) and suggesting that the current belief is that we are headed for a “big crunch” where the universe will collapse back together – he seems to have missed the whole dark energy thing. He then tells us that our “western scientific viewpoint” is historically anomalous. Really this is a big “so what?” point. Almost everything we know to be true now is historically anomalous, because until a few hundred years ago, no one had a clue what was going on either in the universe or on a microscopic scale. All of medicine is historically anomalous. The Earth moving around the Sun is historically anomalous. So?
Finally he offers us some solutions based on meditation and deep scientific considerations like “we will get more out of life if we explore new places and get in new situations.” This is the sort of book that will get plenty of coverage in the media, but frankly does very little for the advancement of scientific knowledge. You know the sort of book it’s going to be when you read that there’s massive anecdotal evidence for precognition. Scientists are often suspicious of anecdotes, preferring to stick to hard facts they can verify (or not) through experiments. But surely there are some cases where anecdotal evidence is so widespread an persuasive that is has to be taken seriously? The simple answer is “no”, Mr Taylor.
I really get fed up of repeating the wonderful quote from the book Voodoo Science by Robert Park: “Data is not the plural of anecdote.” There used to be loads of anecdotal evidence for the existence of unicorns, just as there still is for alien abduction. Anecdotes prove nothing. They can show there is a need for investigation, but that is all. In cases of the paranormal, like precognition, all the anecdotes have yet to produce any significant results (Taylor has to dig back to Rhine’s discredited work). If Mr Taylor has any doubts, James Randi has a million dollars on offer for anyone who can reproduce an ability like precognition under proper conditions. (See his website for details.) No one has yet to come close.
All in all, then, a fascinating topic, but this book provides very little useful content on the matter.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Friday, 18 July 2008

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 stopped over 100,000 years ago, made possible. The main part of the book is divided into five sections, five applications of this urge. These are extending our life – once we realized we were going to die, cosmetic improvements to make us better at attracting a mate and to give social standing, improvements in our (very feeble) natural strength, enhancements to the brain that enabled us to upgrade ourselves in the first place, and repairs to failings in our body.
Generally the mood is very upbeat, and Clegg takes on those who see enhancement as being unnatural, making us something unhuman and undesirable, in a way that puts them firmly in their place. He also casts doubts on the ‘Singularity’ concept (see Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near) that implies that fairly soon in the future we will merge with electronics to become Human 2.0. That doubt arises from the fact that we are already far beyond version 1 – and though the enhancements described here do sometimes involve incorporating technology in the body, the extrapolation used to suggest the Singularity will soon be on us appears to be flawed.
If I have a negative comment it’s that once or twice there are just too many examples thrown at us of the different ways we have modified ourselves through history – I wasn’t too interested in the part on clothing, for example – but it serves to make the point.
Sometimes the best part is finding an unexpected application that takes you by surprise – seeing how dogs, one of our earliest technologies that is still in use, have become a significant human upgrade, for example. Or discovering the amazing possibilities from combining high technology with our bodies, whether in enhancing our senses or producing living, moving tattoos. All in all, a thought provoking and thoughtful read. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

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 be looking at billions dying, and with six degrees we will be close to the end of humanity. This is because average temperature rise is only a limited reflection of the massive impact in different areas. Imagine, for instance, practically all of Africa being uninhabitable, with the population of the African countries all heading for a Europe already suffering badly from climate change as refugees.
I have seen it said by another writer on the topic, Fred Pearce, that unless a book tells you how to prevent climate change as well as what the impact will be, it isn’t doing its job. I think he’s wrong. There are plenty of books on making a difference – it’s essential we get more on the impact to drive it home. The only place Lynas is a little iffy is that he does stray into coping with the impact of climate change, basically saying that come 5 degrees or so, there’s no point going all survivalist, it will just get you killed. This is probably true, but overlooks the fact that we need to be able to deal with the lesser, temporary impact of existing climate change – for example, temporary flooding – which is why I think books like my own Global Warming Survival Kit are an important accompaniment to a book like this.
So if it’s so important (and even won the prestigious Royal Society prize for science writing), why only four stars? Because it isn’t the best of reads as a popular science book. Not because of the uncomfortable message, but the approach inevitably means a slightly repetitious format, and despite Lynas’ efforts to bring in some human interest by mentioning specific places he has visited, after a while, the onslaught of this drought and that flood and so on becomes a bit wearing and tempts you to skip. It’s still very important – just doesn’t quite hit the spot as a great popular science read.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg