Skip to main content

Fatal Flaws – Jay Ingram ****

There is no doubt that Jay Ingram knows how to make a story dramatic, and he does so with all guns blazing in Fatal Flaws, the story of the discovery of the (probable) causes ofprion-based diseases kuru, scrapie, CJD and BSE.
The first half or more of this book reads wonderfully well at a good pace, exploring the detective story behind the suspicions that these diseases were some how transmittable despite not appearing to involve bacteria or virus – in fact any sign of conventional infection. Ingram focuses on two fascinating areas: what prions are and how they could cause such terrible diseases, and the nature of scientific discovery, warts and all. He profitably spends plenty of time on the less salubrious aspects of academic rivalry and the vastly different approaches of some grandstanding scientists and other solid, behind the scenes workers.
From the offset I thought this was a great book. I have a low tolerance for medical matters, but prions and the nature of their means of attack and transmission are so fascinating that this pushed any medical squeamishness out of the way, as did the biographical detail. After all these appear to be proteins with no DNA component that somehow manage to reproduce, running contrary to what could be regarded as a dogmatic aspect of biology. In a horrible way, prions and their ability to interfere with the way other proteins fold are things of wonder.
Only one thing grated – Ingram insists on telling us over and over again what he is doing and how he is going about it. This is mildly irritating. Also the later part of the book, where he looks at the deer equivalent of BSE and goes through a whole set on chapters on brain diseases that are like prion-based diseases with no obvious prion contribution gets a little tedious and lacks all the storytelling and drive of the earlier section.
All in all, despite these minor failings it’s a gripping read on prions, kuru and BSE, and really gives food for thought on the way we go about science. Recommended.

Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

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 …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…