Skip to main content

Creation – Adam Rutherford *****

It is not often that a book jumps out at you as being fresh, original and excellent within minutes of starting to read it – but this was definitely the case with Adam Rutherford’s Creation. It is about both the biological origins of life and how we are artificially changing the nature of life with synthetic biology.
I have read plenty of books on basic biology, but Rutherford triumphs uniquely by giving us a clear exploration of the nature of life, breaking it down to its simplest components and seeing how these could have come into being. This goes far beyond the old ‘organic soup plus lightning’ concepts and takes us across that most difficult of jumps from a collection of organic compounds to something that has a living function.
To be honest, that would be enough on its own, but Rutherford also gives us an excellent and eye-opening look at how we are modifying and constructing life, from Craig Ventner’s synthetic bacterium, through ‘programmed’ bacteria to the practical applications of modified life. This synthetic biology is much more than the basics of genetic engineering and is totally fascinating, perhaps even more so than the ‘origin of life’ part.
What’s more, Rutherford has a breezy approachable writing style that never intimidates and manages to making information entertaining – no mean feat. Just occasionally he overdoes the bonhomie, particularly in his asides in footnotes. I was particularly unhappy with one about Fred Hoyle. Rutherford was rightly pointing out what a big mistake Hoyle made with his 747 from a scrapyard analogy, but Rutherford gets his history of science all wrong by demonstrating Hoyle’s iconoclastic ‘vocally rejecting mainstream ideas’ by saying ‘He disputed the universe’s origin being the result of the Big Bang, which is the overwhelming scientific consensus view.’
The problem with this is that at the time Big Bang was a seriously flawed theory, and arguably Hoyle et al’s alternative Steady State theory was better – Big Bang was certainlynot the overwhelming consensus view. It was only later data, combined with a much hacked about and improved Big Bang theory that made it become that. To put it as Rutherford does totally misrepresents the significance of Hoyle’s theory at the time.
The other moan I have is the way the book is put together (I don’t think this applies to the US or Kindle versions). The two parts of the book, exploring the origins of life and looking at the synthetic future, are in two totally separate halves, begun at opposite ends of the book, one printed inverted to the other. This implies the two sections are independent and can be read in any order – but they aren’t. This is obvious as the introduction of the forward looking section has several references to reading the other section for detail. It should, without doubt, be read ‘origin of life’ first then ‘future of life.’ The flip book format is a silly gimmick that detracts from the outstanding quality of this book.
Without doubt one of the most important popular science books of 2013 and highly recommended.


Review by Brian Clegg


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…