Thursday, 14 January 2016

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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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