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between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire – and some of the history is a little out of date (she says, for instance, that Franklin did the ‘kite in a thunderstorm’ experiment, which is thought unlikely now).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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…