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:  

Audio CD:  

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…