Skip to main content

Spider Silk – Leslie Brunetta & Catherine L. Craig *****

Somewhere in Spider Silk the authors describe one of the first arachnids coming out of the sea onto the land around 400 million years ago. There was little vegetation but for 150 million years these trigonotarbids persisted. They had eight legs and they looked very much like today’s spiders, but with one very important difference: they made no silk.
Silk-making arachnids, attercops, arrived, perhaps, around 20 million years later, but it was not until 290 million years ago that the first arachnids with spinnerets arrived on the scene. These were called mesotheles and 90 species survive to this day. Their mating ritual involves limbo dancing. Some of them lay trip wires. They live in burrows lined with silk and with silken trap doors, and from these they lie in wait…
The mygalomorphae, which arrived 50 millions years later, are hairy and rather large (the tarantula is an example) and unlike the mesotheles, have spinnerets at the end of their abdomen which gives them greater flexibility in web design. Some of them are lethally amorous: interrupt the hour-long clinch of the Sydney Funnelweb at your peril. A bite from one of these little beauties can cause an autonomic storm that can be fatal in the vulnerable.
The next development came with the araneomorphs. These are the most successful arachnids in the world today. They outnumber the mesotheles and mygalomorphs by fourteen to one, and are the silk connoisseurs. All arachnids produce different sorts of silk, but the silk of araneomorphs is made to order. It can be superstrong, superstretchy, supersticky or superfluffy according to requirements – and scientists would love to emulate it.
136 million years ago the araneoidea superfamily came up with the spider trade-mark: the orb. However, since this turned out to have a major design flaw, this is under further development by firm arachnid today.
The book makes fascinating reading with plenty of quirky spider facts. The origin, genetics and molecular structure of the silk is assessed and used to explain the properties, and all of this then set in the context of the web and the behaviour of the spider. Along the way it takes the opportunity to discuss aspects of basic genetics, developmental evolutionary theory and evolution itself. In fact, its description of the finer points of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the explanation of how it differed from earlier theory was the best I’ve ever read. It will give you a new appreciation of the wild life of your home, and give you an excellent excuse not to dust.

Hardback:  

Kindle:  
Review by Clare Dudman

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…