Skip to main content

The Epigenetics Revolution – Nessa Carey ****

There have been lots of popular science books about genetics and evolution, and that’s fine – but there really hasn’t been anywhere near enough coverage of epigenetics, which is why Nessa Carey’s book is so welcome. Over the last 30 years or so it has become increasingly obvious that the idea of genes coding for proteins – the basic concept of genetics – is only a starting point for the way DNA acts to provide control software for the body’s development. There is also RNA that is coded by ‘junk’ DNA and the way genes can be switched on and off by various external factors – all together this is far more than genetics alone. This is epigenetics.
Without doubt this is a fascinating subject, and Carey provides plenty of examples of how epigenetics effects our development, our diseases and the way we inherit characteristics. I was genuinely surprised and delighted by many of the revelations. This is really significant stuff, that hasn’t made its way into many of the popular science genetics titles. What’s more Carey’s style is highly approachable and readable. I was convinced part way through the book that this was going to be a five star, top book.
To be honest, the only reason it’s not five star is the nature of the beast. (Okay, I did find Carey’s hero worship of a handful of key biologists a little irritating, but that wouldn’t have influenced the rating.) I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s comment when studying biology because his physics work wasn’t taking up enough of his time. He was giving a presentation to his classmates, I think on the nervous system of a cat, and started by drawing a ‘map’ of the cat and giving the names of all the relevant components. He was told he didn’t need to tell them all these names, because they were required to learn them. No wonder, concluded Feynman, it took so long to get a biology degree – so much of it was memorizing names, unlike physics, which was much about working out what was happening and required relatively little memorizing.
What I found in Carey’s book was I was getting swamped with all the names of different genes and proteins and goodness knows whats. Some of the pages are dense with these, and after a while I found my eyes bouncing off them. I’d rather she had told us a lot fewer names (you can always, as Feynman pointed out, look them up) and concentrated on the processes and understanding of what’s happening. But, as I say, this is not so much her fault as the nature of biology.
Overall, then, despite occasional parts you might find yourself skipping through, this is a truly eye-opening and exciting book on an important and under-reported topic. For some reason so many books on human biology concentrate on emotions and morality and other aspects on the edge of brain science – it was great to find a book that really took us back to basics, but in a new way.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

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 …