Skip to main content

Spider Silk – Leslie Brunetta & Catherine L. Craig *****

Somewhere in Spider Silk the authors describe one of the first arachnids coming out of the sea onto the land around 400 million years ago. There was little vegetation but for 150 million years these trigonotarbids persisted. They had eight legs and they looked very much like today’s spiders, but with one very important difference: they made no silk.
Silk-making arachnids, attercops, arrived, perhaps, around 20 million years later, but it was not until 290 million years ago that the first arachnids with spinnerets arrived on the scene. These were called mesotheles and 90 species survive to this day. Their mating ritual involves limbo dancing. Some of them lay trip wires. They live in burrows lined with silk and with silken trap doors, and from these they lie in wait…
The mygalomorphae, which arrived 50 millions years later, are hairy and rather large (the tarantula is an example) and unlike the mesotheles, have spinnerets at the end of their abdomen which gives them greater flexibility in web design. Some of them are lethally amorous: interrupt the hour-long clinch of the Sydney Funnelweb at your peril. A bite from one of these little beauties can cause an autonomic storm that can be fatal in the vulnerable.
The next development came with the araneomorphs. These are the most successful arachnids in the world today. They outnumber the mesotheles and mygalomorphs by fourteen to one, and are the silk connoisseurs. All arachnids produce different sorts of silk, but the silk of araneomorphs is made to order. It can be superstrong, superstretchy, supersticky or superfluffy according to requirements – and scientists would love to emulate it.
136 million years ago the araneoidea superfamily came up with the spider trade-mark: the orb. However, since this turned out to have a major design flaw, this is under further development by firm arachnid today.
The book makes fascinating reading with plenty of quirky spider facts. The origin, genetics and molecular structure of the silk is assessed and used to explain the properties, and all of this then set in the context of the web and the behaviour of the spider. Along the way it takes the opportunity to discuss aspects of basic genetics, developmental evolutionary theory and evolution itself. In fact, its description of the finer points of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the explanation of how it differed from earlier theory was the best I’ve ever read. It will give you a new appreciation of the wild life of your home, and give you an excellent excuse not to dust.
Hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Clare Dudman

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…