Skip to main content

Thinking Like a Phage - Merry Youle ***

This is a remarkable book about a remarkable subject, although it's not going to be for everyone. Merry Youle gives us chapter and verse on phages, the remarkably diverse range of viruses that specialise in making use of bacteria (and archaea) as their hosts. These incredibly prolific viruses range from the classic 'moon lander' structures to strange blobs and filaments. Some simply reproduce in a bacterium then destroy it, while others can keep their host alive indefinitely. But they are all worthy of our interest.

Youle picks out around 20 variants who will star throughout the book. They are what she refers to as the 'pheatured phages', reflecting a slightly cringe-making tendency to go for fake 'ph' spellings on a regular basis. And should you read the book end to end you will find out a huge amount about them. You will also delight in the illustrations, which range from watercolour-enhanced diagrams to detailed sketches of complex virion structures to electron microscope scans and computer-drawn structural diagrams. There are lots of these illustrations, many of them in colour, making parts of the book a visual treat.

If this book is to be used by biology students to get the information they need on phages, it's wonderful. It is simply the most fun introductory textbook I've ever seen - and if I were reviewing it as a textbook, I would give it more stars. As popular science, though, it falls down a bit. Youle doesn't handle Feynman's biology challenge well. Famously, when studying biology in his spare time, the great American physicist said '"[...] no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.' 

We are simply bombarded, both in the text and in endless footnotes, with definitions for page after page. (And even those probably aren't enough, as some of the terms used that won't be familiar to the general reader aren't defined.) To be for the rest of us, the idea is as much as possible to avoid jargon, not to define it at length. There's simply far too much information we really don't want to know.

Having said that, there are parts of the book that are still digestible to the non-biologist. For example, Yule gives her 'pheatured phages' nicknames like Lander, Fickle and Skinny' to avoid the awful names they tend to be given. But there's still plenty here that isn't accessible.

It depends, then, what you are looking for. If you want an introduction to phages for biology students, this is truly wonderful, but for the general reader it's far too heavy going.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Creativity Code - Marcus du Sautoy *****

At first glance this might just be another 'What AI is good at and not so good at' title. And in a way, it is. But, wow, what a brilliant book! Marcus du Sautoy takes us on a tour of what artificial intelligence has achieved (and possibly can in the future achieve) in a range of fields from his own of mathematics, through game playing, music, art and more.

After a little discussion of what creativity is, we start off with the now very familiar story of DeepMind's AlphaGo and its astonishing ability to take on the hugely challenging game of Go. Even though I've read about this many times before, du Sautoy, as a Go player and mathematician, gives a real feel for why this was such a triumph - and so shocking. Not surprisingly he is also wonderful on what mathematicians actually do, how computers have helped them to date and how they have the potential to do far more in the future. After all, mathematics is by far the closest science to game playing, as it has strict rule…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…