Skip to main content

Creation – Adam Rutherford *****

It is not often that a book jumps out at you as being fresh, original and excellent within minutes of starting to read it – but this was definitely the case with Adam Rutherford’s Creation. It is about both the biological origins of life and how we are artificially changing the nature of life with synthetic biology.
I have read plenty of books on basic biology, but Rutherford triumphs uniquely by giving us a clear exploration of the nature of life, breaking it down to its simplest components and seeing how these could have come into being. This goes far beyond the old ‘organic soup plus lightning’ concepts and takes us across that most difficult of jumps from a collection of organic compounds to something that has a living function.
To be honest, that would be enough on its own, but Rutherford also gives us an excellent and eye-opening look at how we are modifying and constructing life, from Craig Ventner’s synthetic bacterium, through ‘programmed’ bacteria to the practical applications of modified life. This synthetic biology is much more than the basics of genetic engineering and is totally fascinating, perhaps even more so than the ‘origin of life’ part.
What’s more, Rutherford has a breezy approachable writing style that never intimidates and manages to making information entertaining – no mean feat. Just occasionally he overdoes the bonhomie, particularly in his asides in footnotes. I was particularly unhappy with one about Fred Hoyle. Rutherford was rightly pointing out what a big mistake Hoyle made with his 747 from a scrapyard analogy, but Rutherford gets his history of science all wrong by demonstrating Hoyle’s iconoclastic ‘vocally rejecting mainstream ideas’ by saying ‘He disputed the universe’s origin being the result of the Big Bang, which is the overwhelming scientific consensus view.’
The problem with this is that at the time Big Bang was a seriously flawed theory, and arguably Hoyle et al’s alternative Steady State theory was better – Big Bang was certainlynot the overwhelming consensus view. It was only later data, combined with a much hacked about and improved Big Bang theory that made it become that. To put it as Rutherford does totally misrepresents the significance of Hoyle’s theory at the time.
The other moan I have is the way the book is put together (I don’t think this applies to the US or Kindle versions). The two parts of the book, exploring the origins of life and looking at the synthetic future, are in two totally separate halves, begun at opposite ends of the book, one printed inverted to the other. This implies the two sections are independent and can be read in any order – but they aren’t. This is obvious as the introduction of the forward looking section has several references to reading the other section for detail. It should, without doubt, be read ‘origin of life’ first then ‘future of life.’ The flip book format is a silly gimmick that detracts from the outstanding quality of this book.
Without doubt one of the most important popular science books of 2013 and highly recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …