Skip to main content

Herding Hemingway's Cats - Kat Arney ****

It's a book about cats, then? No, it isn't - but the author Ernest Hemingway gets a mention because at Key West he had a penchant for cats with a genetic variation that gave them an extra toe. (Apparently this is a myth, as Hemingway didn't have cats in Key West, but it's a good story.) Ah, I've got it - the title is a pun. The author's called Kat and the title says Cats. It's a joke. Nope. Okay, it's an attempt to duplicate the success of the rather similarly titled "In Search of Schrödinger's Cat"? That certainly might be the reasoning behind the title, but it's actually about the bizarre complexity of molecular biology, the weird and wonderful mechanisms that make use of DNA and RNA to develop living organisms and to keep them healthy.

 That 'bizarre complexity' part is no exaggeration. The real fascination of this book - and it truly is fascinating - lies in the Byzantine convolutions employed by living systems at the sub-cellular level. Kat Arney beautifully documents what is surely the ultimate counter to any suggestion that living organisms were designed, as they never seem to take a single, simple step to achieve something where seven complex back and forth interactions could achieve the same result. As a non-biologist I had previously been amazed by the sophistication of the molecular machinery in complex cells, but I had no idea just how messy and disorganised the whole interaction between DNA and RNA to produce proteins, switch genes on and off, splice bits of molecule here and there and generally get something remarkable out of apparent chaos is. Heath Robinson had nothing on biology - it's amazing that anything living survives.

 Arney presents the information in an extremely chatty and informal style. It works well that much of the book is based around a series of interviews with leading scientists in the field, as it gives a chance for personalities to emerge in what is inevitably a description-heavy topic. In fact, if anything, the writing style was just a touch too informal for me - I suspect many will really enjoy Arney's pithy asides, but sometimes, comments like 'you may wish to ponder this tale the next time you're in close proximity to a penis. I know I will.' struck me as trying just a little bit too hard.

 The biggest problem here, which is not entirely helped by the format, is that in the end, amazing and fascinating though the mechanisms involved in manipulating DNA and RNA are, in the end we get page after page of descriptions of how molecules behave, and even the core fascination of the complexity, and the interesting people, can't always stop this feeling distinctly repetitive. The way the presentation is based on various interviews doesn't help here, because it means what is already a random and confusing story is not presented in a logical order based on the science, so the chance of getting blinded by the science is increased. I'd also pick up Arney on her own comment 'It's just as true in science as it is elsewhere in life that a picture is worth a thousand words' - so why aren't there any? There is not a single illustration in the book, and some of the things she describes cry out for a good diagram. If you aren't a biologist, it's easy to struggle to visualise what is being described.

 Nonetheless, this a great addition to the rapidly growing field of books giving us an insight into just how complex biology is at the molecular level, and I feel privileged to have indirectly met these interesting people via Arney's interviews. While the material itself can get a touch samey, that goes with the territory - and otherwise it's a great piece of popular science.

Hardback:  
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…