Skip to main content

In the Beginning was the Worm – Andrew Brown *****

Although it’s not a biography, people are central to Andrew Brown’s delightful study of the lengthy struggle to sequence the genome of a small, common-or-garden worm. Not only do you get a feel for the science involved in generating the first ever complete genome sequencing by Sydney Brenner, Bob Horvitz and John Sulston, but also for the realities of modern scientific work – down to the remarkably simple proposal that won Brenner et al a grant that would eventually lead to the Nobel prize.
The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans isn’t much to look at, though Brown assures us that it is beautiful in the right light (and through the right microscope – it is only half a millimetre long), but proved the ideal subject for this task. The job wasn’t just about understanding the genetic mechanism, but required a total physical map of the worm and how its ‘circuits’ were wired. For this it provided the ideal balance of simplicity but with enough to it to make it worth investigating.
Any faults? He does have a tendency to repeat small blocks of text (one quote three times), and though he’s great at describing what happened and the people, it’s not the best book to get an understanding of what DNA sequencing really is – but these are quibbles.
The book works so well because the author isn’t afraid to uncover the sometimes rather unpleasant human traits that seem to accompany great achievement is science as much as any other field. You might not love Brown’s subjects as you get to know them (that’s both the worms and the scientists), but you can hardly fail to be fascinated by them.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…