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The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on mammals, producing the different structures we see in a living organism.

We also read a fair amount on chimeras, where cells from different organisms can be combined (causing some dramatic newspaper headlines) and why they are valuable for research, with important and balanced discussion of the ethical limits of human embryo research, plus some fascinating material on effectively creating artificial embryoids. Part of the appeal here is the way that the authors portray the slow and not always steady progress - sometimes under significant attack from opposing scientists - that typifies real science, as opposed to the simplistic picture we often get, particularly from the way what we're taught at school simply delivers the end results without following the way the ideas and experiments have developed through a lot of grunt work.

Although the book is very well written, as someone from a physics background I do find the sheer quantity of things that have to be named a struggle. When I tell people physics is vastly simpler than biology, most non-scientists are non-plussed, but in physics, almost everything matter does can be dealt with using just three particles and two forces. Here, in one page alone, the authors feel the need to tell me about methylation, argenine residues, histones, trophectoderms, CARM1, H3, SOX2, NANOG and pluripotency transcription factors  - and that's by no means an unusual page.

Despite this, though, there was no doubt the book is fascinating. The only reason I've not given it five stars is that I'm not a fan of memoirs. It's not that I want a science book to be impersonal, and I appreciated some insights into Zernicka-Goetz's background (there were interesting parallels in her ingenuity arising from initially doing science under the limitations of working in 1980s Poland with Andre Geim's novel approach based on his early experience in Russia that led to the development of graphene) - but there was far too much autobiographical material for me. I appreciate a lot of readers love this, but I found it got in the way a little. (It was also weird, reading a book with two authors, written in the first person singular.) 

Ultimately, though, this remains a truly remarkable story and a book that deserves a place on any serious science bookshelf.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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