Skip to main content

The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft ****

I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions, but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process (strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in ‘normal’ electricity, but of ions) is handled by ion channels.
After a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren’t really explained until later, biologist Frances Ashcroft, who spends her days working with ion channels, gives us a brief introduction to electricity. This physics part is by far the weakest bit of the book. For example she doesn’t differentiate between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire – and some of the history is a little out of date (she says, for instance, that Franklin did the ‘kite in a thunderstorm’ experiment, which is thought unlikely now). But this is only an introductory phase before we get into the meat of the book, which is quite fascinating.
Ashcroft explains how ion channels can open and close to allow a flow of ions through, and how electrical energy is involved in making these essential cell components function. This is absolutely fascinating from the first mention of sodium pumps (I was hoping to come across the medication type proton pump inhibitors, which like many thousands of people I take, but if they were mentioned I missed it). It is remarkable how this essential part of cell function wasn’t properly understood until around 50 years ago.
For the rest of the book we are taken on a tour of the body and the way that ion channels have a powerful influence on everything from poisoning to the functioning of memory. It is quite mind-boggling just how much these tiny channels do for us – always dependent on that electrical motive power.
For me – and it is fair to say that my biology tolerance is pretty low – the book did get a little repetitious in some ways, if only because of the central role of ion channels throughout. I suspect, though, for many, the connection with the functioning of the human body will keep that interest going – and Ashcroft has a light, approachable tone and makes sufficient ventures into the wider picture to keep the reader on-board. Overall a subject that clearly needed writing about, carefully and entertainingly revealed.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…