Skip to main content

I Contain Multitudes - Ed Yong ****

Famously, according to Douglas Adams, The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy (not the novel, the 'actual' guide) begin by telling you at length how big space is, but then 'After a while the style settles down a bit and it starts telling you things you actually need to know' - and the opening of Ed Yong's exploration of the microbiome, the complex world of bacterial life inside us and generally in living things and around the world, is rather reminiscent of this. 

In the first couple of chapters, we are fed fact after fact in a staccato collection of information that has no sense of narrative or flow, rather like a set of frenzied bullet points, which becomes wearing for the reader. For example there are two paragraphs in a row, one with practically all the sentences starting 'They', and the next with almost all beginning 'We'll'. Thankfully, though, like the HHGTTG, We Are Multitude then settles down and gets on with job in hand.


It's a job that Ed Yong does very well. It's hardly news that we have many, many bacterial cells in us (though it does biologists no scientific favours when we discover the much used 'ten times as many as human cells' figure was just picked out of the air and has no scientific basis). However, Yong quickly takes us beyond that to explore the nuances of a very intricate relationship between bacteria and more complex life that could be summarised as 'Can't live with them, can't live without them.' Even many of our most hated bacterial foes can have positive roles at the right place and the right time.

What certainly comes across is that our knee-jerk reaction of 'germs are bad' leads to an overemphasis on removing them, where actually they are often doing a useful job. When we go mad with our antibacterial cleansers, we are more like to wipe out good bacteria, leaving space for colonisation by nasties, than we are to simply kill off a threat.  And Yong gives us a dramatic tour of the sheer variety of microbes and the environments in which different bacterial life can thrive, whether we talking black smokers or dolphin armpits.

Every now and then, we get some excellent storytelling, but the use of example after example does give the impression to the non-biologist of the kind of approach that led Rutherford to comment that all science is either physics or stamp collecting - there is a fair amount of stamp collecting here.  However, whenever the reader is beginning to feel that they are losing interest, up comes a really interesting part. I loved, for example, the story of the way that bacteria actually re-engineer the physical structure of a glow-in-the-dark squid. And it's hard not be impressed by the description of bacteria surveys being undertaken in a brand new hospital as it is brought into use, to see where the bugs come from. One of the particularly engaging observations is the emphasis on the benefits of open windows to allow bacteria to come in from the outside. Your mum's enthusiasm for getting you out in the fresh air was justified after all.

If there's one message the reader comes away with, it's that we need to be more nuanced in our thinking about bacteria - sometimes, it seems almost to be a case of 'sit back and enjoy the ride, because whatever you do will probably mess things up.' You'll never look at a probiotic yogurt drink or a bottle of toilet cleaner the same again.


Hardback:  
Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…