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The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body Paperback – 2 May 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (2 May 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141046538
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141046532
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 76,468 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

This is a wonderful book. Frances Ashcroft has a rare gift for making difficult subjects accessible and fascinating (Bill Bryson)

About the Author

Frances Ashcroft is Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford. She is also Director of OXION, a consortium of scientists studying ion channels, the heroes of this book. Her scientific research focuses on how a rise in your blood sugar level stimulates the release of insulin and what why this process goes wrong in diabetes. She has won many prizes for her research, most recently the L'Oreal/UNESCO 2012 Women in Science award. She is also a recipient of the Lewis Thomas Prize for Science Writing for The Spark of Life. Her first book for the general reader was Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By T. Russell VINE VOICE on 26 Sept. 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
What makes this book so fascinating is that the author is herself involved at the leading edge of research, and has personal knowledge of the science as well as knowing many of the others working in the same field. As she explains early on, much of the information in the book has been discovered very recently; I studied elementary cytology and biochemistry/electrochemistry in the early seventies, and the advances since then are astonishing - I'm also rather glad that I recently updated my knowledge of anatomy. I heard the author talking on the radio shortly after I acquired the book, and she said that she may have assumed more basic knowledge than many readers will possess, and it's true that some may find some of the book hard going, especially without basic knowledge of the various sciences; in this regard, one of the few weaknesses of the book is the relative paucity of diagrams, and the ones which we have are such as may confuse rather than inform. Fortunately, the text is lightened by diverting episodes on a wide range of subjects, from fainting goats and electric eels to poison arrow frogs and vampire bats as the role of electricity is examined. We also have an insider's look at the history of experiment in the field (including the author's own work) and we realise the absolute dedication of the researchers, the time and care expended on their investigations and the not inconsiderable amount of luck involved. Above all, the value of cooperation is demonstrated, and the idea of the world community of science, as so many advances are due to individuals sharing information in order to achieve their goals. This is a very active area of science, and this is an exciting glimpse.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Max on 12 Aug. 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Often when a scientist or social scientist writes a book on their favourite topic, it revolves around quite a simple central idea. Ashcroft is no exception; The Spark of Life is woven around the core idea that it ion channels within our bodies generate differences in electrical potential. These potential differences cause electric currents to flow, and it is these currents that are the source of much of what makes the human body alive, and human.

Often when an author has a simple core idea like this, what they produce is really an academic paper's worth of information, padded out horribly to fill the pages of the book. This is where Ashcroft departs from the norm. The Spark of Life is jam-packed with information, with different chapters covering very different topics.

In particular, the reader really gets to see the diversity of life processes that are powered by ion channels. Interwoven into these descriptions are interesting anecdotes and asides. In fact, at times I found these asides more interesting than the core idea; when Ashcroft was writing about ion channels using quite technical, scientific language, I sometimes found it harder to follow and to sustain my interest.

However, in some cases these asides felt like they went too far. In particular, the penultimate chapter is on consciousness, and how the brain makes us who we are. Fascinating in itself, but there was barely a mention of electricity in this chapter, and so I'm not quite sure why it was included.

Overall, then, a rich and varied book, worth every one of its 300 or so pages. A great read if this is an area of interest.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Brian Clegg TOP 500 REVIEWER on 15 Jun. 2013
Format: Paperback
I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions, but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process (strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in `normal' electricity, but of ions) is handled by ion channels.

After a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren't really explained until later, biologist Frances Ashcroft, who spends her days working with ion channels, gives us a brief introduction to electricity. This physics part is by far the weakest bit of the book. For example she doesn't differentiate between a flow of electrons and the electromagnetic signal in a wire - and some of the history is a little out of date (she says, for instance, that Franklin did the `kite in a thunderstorm' experiment, which is thought unlikely now). But this is only an introductory phase before we get into the meat of the book, which is quite fascinating.

Ashcroft explains how ion channels can open and close to allow a flow of ions through, and how electrical energy is involved in making these essential cell components function. This is absolutely fascinating from the first mention of sodium pumps (I was hoping to come across the medication type proton pump inhibitors, which like many thousands of people I take, but if they were mentioned I missed it). It is remarkable how this essential part of cell function wasn't properly understood until around 50 years ago.

For the rest of the book we are taken on a tour of the body and the way that ion channels have a powerful influence on everything from poisoning to the functioning of memory.
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