Skip to main content

Thinking Like a Phage - Merry Youle ***

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable subject, although it's not going to be for everyone. Merry Youle gives us chapter and verse on phages, the remarkably diverse range of viruses that specialise in making use of bacteria (and archaea) as their hosts. These incredibly prolific viruses range from the classic 'moon lander' structures to strange blobs and filaments. Some simply reproduce in a bacterium then destroy it, while others can keep their host alive indefinitely. But they are all worthy of our interest.

Youle picks out around 20 variants who will star throughout the book. They are what she refers to as the 'pheatured phages', reflecting a slightly cringe-making tendency to go for fake 'ph' spellings on a regular basis. And should you read the book end to end you will find out a huge amount about them. You will also delight in the illustrations, which range from watercolour-enhanced diagrams to detailed sketches of complex virion structures to electron microscope scans and computer-drawn structural diagrams. There are lots of these illustrations, many of them in colour, making parts of the book a visual treat.

If this book is to be used by biology students to get the information they need on phages, it's wonderful. It is simply the most fun introductory textbook I've ever seen - and if I were reviewing it as a textbook, I would give it more stars. As popular science, though, it falls down a bit. Youle doesn't handle Feynman's biology challenge well. Famously, when studying biology in his spare time, the great American physicist said '"[...] no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.' 

We are simply bombarded, both in the text and in endless footnotes, with definitions for page after page. (And even those probably aren't enough, as some of the terms used that won't be familiar to the general reader aren't defined.) To be for the rest of us, the idea is as much as possible to avoid jargon, not to define it at length. There's simply far too much information we really don't want to know.

Having said that, there are parts of the book that are still digestible to the non-biologist. For example, Yule gives her 'pheatured phages' nicknames like Lander, Fickle and Skinny' to avoid the awful names they tend to be given. But there's still plenty here that isn't accessible.

It depends, then, what you are looking for. If you want an introduction to phages for biology students, this is truly wonderful, but for the general reader it's far too heavy going.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…