Skip to main content

Freaks of Nature – Mark S. Blumberg ***

This is an interesting book to set alongside Armand Leroi’s remarkable book Mutants. As a pure reading experience, Mutants is without doubt streets ahead. Leroi’s style is much more readable and engaging, where Blumberg tends to the pompous and resorts to academic pronouncement. However he does have a good criticism of the dependence of Mutants on a genetic basis for unusual physical formation in animals and humans. After all, as Blumberg points out, human beings have produced quite dramatic variants through environmental pressures – head and foot binding, for instance. Development is as important to the production of freaks of nature as is the genetic material and its flaws.
That said, Mutants is, not surprisingly, about, well, mutants – so it’s hardly surprising that this is the main thrust of Leroi’s story. But the distinction does give Blumberg a broader canvas to work with. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Blumberg’s stress on the way animals develop over and above pure genetic shaping of evolution. It gives some interesting insights into the nature of species and variation. We see just what a delicate process the development process is – and how those who have not formed along normal lines have developed mechanisms to cope.
The blurb on the back calls this book ‘beautifully written’ and calls Blumberg a ‘scientist-writer who can sweep us along’ – I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to this book, but do recognize it has an important message for those who see everything as written in the genes.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide - Jim Bell **

Not too long ago, NASA brought out a series of spoof ‘space tourism’ posters for various destinations in the Solar System. For people like me, who have watched NASA depressingly fail to send humans to the other planets for decade after decade, it was just another painful twist of the knife. On the other hand, the posters probably have more appeal for younger and less cynical minds, by presenting familiar astronomical objects in a new and engaging way. There may even be scope for a whole book along these lines – and that’s what Jim Bell has attempted here.

The main thing I learned from it is that my brain is programmed to read either fiction or non-fiction, and can’t handle a 50:50 mix of the two – which is what this book is. It drove me mad –  not least because I could see that the same material, presented as straight non-fiction, could have made a really excellent book. Using the NASA posters as a starting point, he could have enumerated the potential ‘tourist sights’ at each location…