Skip to main content

Genome – Matt Ridley *****

The output of the human genome project is a heavy duty subject – just understanding what’s involved in the process is not easy; interpreting the results operates at a wholedifferent level. As for writing about the human genome in an accessible and enjoyable way – this is a particularly drastic challenge.
Ridley not only succeeds but does so in a rather cute fashion. This is ‘an autobiography of a species in 23 chapters’. The number 23 is no random selection – it corresponds to the number of chromosome pairs we have, and Ridley picks out a gene to feature from each chromosome pair in each chapter.
This approach enables his book to be far reaching, looking at our relationship to other owners of the gene, from bacteria to great apes, spanning from the earliest forms of life to the genes that could be responsible for intelligence and language.
Evolutionary theory, biology’s great triumph, is put across very effectively alongside good background material on genetics, and of the many books around the human genome, this has to be one of the best.
Particularly attractive is Ridley’s style – effortlessly informative, yet light enough to almost always be enjoyable. If there’s anything to criticize it is an over use of something to the effect of “to go through all of this would bore you to tears, but I just want to show you this little bit because…” – but that is a very minor moan.
This reviewer has a physics background and expects biology-based popular science to often be an necessary chore rather than a pleasure – this is a definite exception!
It’s interesting to read it alongside Andrew Brown’s In the Beginning was the Worm.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a de…