Skip to main content

Herding Hemingway's Cats - Kat Arney ****

It's a book about cats, then? No, it isn't - but the author Ernest Hemingway gets a mention because at Key West he had a penchant for cats with a genetic variation that gave them an extra toe. (Apparently this is a myth, as Hemingway didn't have cats in Key West, but it's a good story.) Ah, I've got it - the title is a pun. The author's called Kat and the title says Cats. It's a joke. Nope. Okay, it's an attempt to duplicate the success of the rather similarly titled "In Search of Schrödinger's Cat"? That certainly might be the reasoning behind the title, but it's actually about the bizarre complexity of molecular biology, the weird and wonderful mechanisms that make use of DNA and RNA to develop living organisms and to keep them healthy.

 That 'bizarre complexity' part is no exaggeration. The real fascination of this book - and it truly is fascinating - lies in the Byzantine convolutions employed by living systems at the sub-cellular level. Kat Arney beautifully documents what is surely the ultimate counter to any suggestion that living organisms were designed, as they never seem to take a single, simple step to achieve something where seven complex back and forth interactions could achieve the same result. As a non-biologist I had previously been amazed by the sophistication of the molecular machinery in complex cells, but I had no idea just how messy and disorganised the whole interaction between DNA and RNA to produce proteins, switch genes on and off, splice bits of molecule here and there and generally get something remarkable out of apparent chaos is. Heath Robinson had nothing on biology - it's amazing that anything living survives.

 Arney presents the information in an extremely chatty and informal style. It works well that much of the book is based around a series of interviews with leading scientists in the field, as it gives a chance for personalities to emerge in what is inevitably a description-heavy topic. In fact, if anything, the writing style was just a touch too informal for me - I suspect many will really enjoy Arney's pithy asides, but sometimes, comments like 'you may wish to ponder this tale the next time you're in close proximity to a penis. I know I will.' struck me as trying just a little bit too hard.

 The biggest problem here, which is not entirely helped by the format, is that in the end, amazing and fascinating though the mechanisms involved in manipulating DNA and RNA are, in the end we get page after page of descriptions of how molecules behave, and even the core fascination of the complexity, and the interesting people, can't always stop this feeling distinctly repetitive. The way the presentation is based on various interviews doesn't help here, because it means what is already a random and confusing story is not presented in a logical order based on the science, so the chance of getting blinded by the science is increased. I'd also pick up Arney on her own comment 'It's just as true in science as it is elsewhere in life that a picture is worth a thousand words' - so why aren't there any? There is not a single illustration in the book, and some of the things she describes cry out for a good diagram. If you aren't a biologist, it's easy to struggle to visualise what is being described.

 Nonetheless, this a great addition to the rapidly growing field of books giving us an insight into just how complex biology is at the molecular level, and I feel privileged to have indirectly met these interesting people via Arney's interviews. While the material itself can get a touch samey, that goes with the territory - and otherwise it's a great piece of popular science.

Hardback:  
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…