Skip to main content

The Compatibility Gene – Daniel M. Davis *****

Some of the best popular science books tell us as much about the people as the science, and that is the approach taken byDaniel Davis. In exploring the ‘compatibility gene’ (or more accurately, the ‘compatibility genes’ – I don’t know why it’s singular in the title). He takes us on a voyage of discovery through the key steps to identifying the small group of genes that seem to contribute to making that individual more or less compatible with other people, whether on the level of transplants or sexual compatibility, taking in our growing understanding of the immune system along the way.
It probably helps that Davis is a practising scientist in the field – the director of research at the University of Manchester’s Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research and a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. Often, frankly, discovering the book is by a working scientist can mean turgid text or an inability to explain the science in a way the general reader can understand, but Davis writes fluently and often beautifully, as much in love with the history of his trade as the scientific breakthroughs he covers.A good example of the way he brings a topic to life is the first subject to come under his spotlight, the Nobel Prize winning Peter Medawar and his colleagues (several of whom also get a good biographical introduction). I’ve read before about Medawar’s work on rejection and compatibility in transplants, but in Davis’ hands it’s almost as if you are talking to Medawar about his life and achievements, giving a real insight into the bumpy process of scientific discovery.
The book divides into three, looking at the scientific revolution in compatibility, the frontier of compatibility and the ‘overarching system’ which includes the near-notorious T-shirt sniffing research and the remarkable suggestion that a couple having the right mix of compatibility genes can enhance their ability to have children. All in all, there’s a good mix of the relatively familiar and the surprising new, all handled in Davis’ measured, likeable phrasing.
I only really have two small niggles (I’ve never written a review yet without any). One is that I think Davis is almost too close to the subject and, as a result, perhaps gives it more of a sense of importance than it deserves. Of course, from a medical viewpoint, this is important work, but the way he seems to put it up there with the work of Newton, Darwin and Einstein perhaps overinflates its importance. The other slight problem I have is that for me, there is rather too much biography, and not quite enough science. (It’s interesting that the lead endorsement in the press release is by Bill Bryson.) It sounds terrible, but I’m only really interested in the biographies of a handful of key scientists and that apart I’d rather just have a quick sketch and get into the science in a bit more depth – but I appreciate that this might be a very different opinion from that of many would be readers.
So don’t be put off by that textbook-like, low key cover – this is a really interesting read about a fascinating area of genetics and medicine. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Paperback from August 2014:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…