Skip to main content

The Vital Question - Nick Lane ****

This is a bravura, hit-you-between-the-eyes popular science book which, were it not for a couple of failings, would not only be five star, but quite possibly the best popular science book of the year so far.

Nick Lane succeeds on two levels. One is opening the eyes of a relatively ignorant reader on the subject of biology like me to the sheer, magnificent complexity of biological mechanisms. I was aware, for instance, of mitochondria as the power sources of eukaryotic cells,  but hadn't a clue just how complex the molecular machines that function across their boundary to the wider cell and inside each mitochondrion were. It is truly mind boggling and wonderful. At one point, Lane comments with raised virtual eyebrows on the number of physicists now working in biology - but that's not at all surprising when it becomes plain how much of what goes on is down to pure physics, whether it's pumping protons, passing electrical charges or quantum tunnelling. Lane does resort to the odd exclamation mark, normally frowned on by writers, but for once it seems entirely justified.

The other impressive aspect of the book might be less familiar even to some biologists when Lane explores the origins of life - no longer from an organic 'soup', but now thought to be primarily from water and carbon dioxide - how the energy requirements of life can sometimes tell us more than genetics about the way living cells turned out, how our complex cells seem to have developed initially from the embedding of bacteria into another prokaryotes, this time archaea. And that's just the start in a complex ride that involves changing membranes from one kind to another, the spontaneous formation of a nucleus, the changing nature of DNA and far more. It even explains why practically all eukaryotes like us have sexual reproduction. Perhaps most surprising is that the earliest common ancestor of eukaryotes seems to have already had most of these complex mechanisms and structures, for reasons that again Lane makes very plausible. It's fascinating and really changes the idea of how various kinds of living cells may have come into being.

So what's the downside? The writing is rather repetitious. It's amusing that early on Lane refers to this as a short book, saying that it is as short as it could possibly be to get the point across. But it is, in fact, a middle-sized book that could have been significantly more short and to the point with some of the repetition, particularly in the first few chapters, taken out.

More significantly, I think the book suffers from Feynman's ague - when the great American physicist was involved in biology he bemoaned the vast quantity of labels that had to be learned to get anywhere and I found there were plenty of pages where I didn't really understand what Lane was talking about because I had either never come across, or had already forgotten the explanation of yet another tedious term. The book really could have benefited from a co-author who wasn't a biologist to say 'you've lost me' ever few pages (or in some cases every few lines). I got the overall gist, but I felt I was missing out on some of the finer points and did skip a few pages where it was all getting too much for me.

Despite those misgivings, though, there is so much to discover in this book. I would recommend it for either of my two reasons for liking it alone - but taken together they make a potent package that will truly bring out the sense of wonder as only good science can.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…