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.

Hardback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

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 …