Skip to main content

The Hunt for FOXP5 (SF) - Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer ****

I've read a good few novels that attempt to provide edutainment - to work as a good story while simultaneously providing the reader with the kind of interesting information about science you might find in a popular science book. Most don't work at all. Either they fall over on the fiction writing, painfully lathering on the facts and writing amateurish prose, or they are so science-light that they are, in effect just straightforward hard science fiction, perhaps with a 'science behind the story' at the back. This title by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer, I would say, is the best I've ever read in terms of achieving a balance of the two.

In the Hunt for FOXP5 we meet genetics professor Michelle Murphy and her extremely intelligent daughter Avalon (yes, really), adopted from a Kazakhstan orphanage, the way you do. In a mix of archeology, genetics and nationalist political intrigue we get a feel for how the FOXP2 gene may have resulted in human language ability distinguishing early humans from the other humanoids - and how a later single mutation, producing the (fictional) FOXP5, could result in extraordinary human intelligence. This change is something that the scientific leader of Kazakhstan wants to make a national treasure, so we end up with plenty of fun involving capture, escape and rescue attempts to give the plot action.

The book isn't without flaws. The writing is workmanlike, but fails to take the advice 'show don't tell' rather too often. There's also a bit of a plot weakness when none of the highly intelligent main characters appear to notice that it's probably not a great idea to take an orphan, who was removed from a not-entirely-democratic country in a process involving lots of dubious bribery, back to her country of birth. There is also the usual issue that when reading such a book, that the reader is never quite sure which bits are real science, and which are fiction. Admittedly the short 'scientific appendices' section does try to fill some of this in, but it's an inevitable difficulty. I sometimes wonder if there should be a 'science accuracy level' thermometer in each page margin. It's also a bit disappointing when a science-based book makes as basic an error as referring to 'absolute temperature expressed as degrees Kelvin'. (No degrees in the Kelvin scale, just kelvins.)

Despite these concerns, I rattled through the book, enjoyed the adventure, which hovered between adult and young adult in apparent audience level, and felt I was really gaining something from the science content - so a good thumbs up to Messrs Kaufman and Deamer.



Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

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…