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GoatHorns (Oxford, England)

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Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Most Beautiful Thing We Can Experience Is the Mysterious", 16 Mar. 2012
By the age of twenty-four, Sir Isaac Newton had discovered the calculus, invented a new kind of telescope, and begun his exploration into the force of gravity. It is easy to see why most scientists consider Newton the greatest of them all. Newton also undertook investigations into the nature of light; he was the first to recombine a spectrum of colours back into white light. For this discovery, Newton was accused by the poet John Keats of destroying the poetry of the rainbow by `reducing it to its prismatic colours'. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins fervently takes up the defense of Newton, explaining that science only adds to the poetry of nature. As Feynman described, the aestheics of a flower become more appreciable when illuminated by science. The genius of Dawkins' exposition lies not merely in its elegant intonation, which is no less imposing because we have come to expect it, but in its essential truth.

Whilst never mawkish or self-indulgent, Dawkins entertains poetic metaphor and allegory in Unweaving the Rainbow. He believes that good science should stimulate the imagination, and remarks, `It is a central tenet of this book that science, at its best, should leave room for poetry'. Indeed, scientists and poets (artists?) have a lot in common; both are motivated by a sense of wonder for the natural world. Why is science seen as mirthless, uncool, and difficult? Why is proclaiming mathematical ineptitute socially acceptable? How can someone be considered cultured if they possess not a scant understanding of the Laws of Thermodynamics or the process of Natural Selection (regardless of their adeptness at quoting Shakespeare)?

Along the way, Dawkins disposes of charlatans, frauds, and faith-heads. Here, he is witty and incisive. We'd like to think that the horoscope gimmick is only for the most credulous - the truth is that astrology books far outsell astronomy.

In the antepenultimate chapter, The Genetic Book of the Dead, Dawkins paints a picture of our genomes as a warehouse of coded information that, in an indirect sense, describe the world in which our ancestors lived. `We are digital archives of the African Pliocene, even of Devonian seas; walking repositories of wisdom out of the old days. You could spend a lifetime reading in this library and die unsated by the wonder of it.' If that doesn't instill the poetry in science, what will?

The evolution of the human brain is the topic of the final chapter. Lesser writers on this subject often produce convoluted and highly descriptive texts. Here again, Dawkins effortlessly mingles the cerebral and the poetic.

There is perhaps a token of irony in the fact that Newton spent large portions of his life obsessed with the ocult and alchemy. Newton, regardless of his unparalled achievements, was a man of the seventeenth century however. Today we have no excuse for indulging in astrology, telepathy, gods, or ghosts. We don't need these fallacies anymore. Science moves forward, piling on the evidence, explaining the rainbows.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom
Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom
by Sean B. Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Teaching old genes new tricks, 15 Jan. 2012
We must move away from thinking of evolution (and teaching it) as 'the changes in frequency of genes in genomes'. At worst, this is incomplete and misleading. At best, it is boring an uninformative. Instead, evolution is about changes in an organisms' form over (usually vast) time, brought about through changes in embryology. Furthermore, form is not moulded by changes in genes, per se, but more by alterations in how genes are utilised during development. We have pretty much the same repertoire of genes as worms and flies, yet the differences in form between us and them is obvious. It is changes in gene expression, in time and space, resulting from natural selection, that truly drives evolutionary adaptation. This is the core of Carroll's argument.

For too long the sciences of 'genetics' and 'developmental biology' were separated. 'Evolutionary developmental biology' or 'Evo-Devo' brings them back together with embryology as a central focus. Carroll is unquestionably a world leader in this relatively new field, and so is well positioned to write such a book.

The book is split broadly into two sections. First, Carroll describes the development of organisms. This makes readers familiar with genes, gene expression, and gene regulation. He introduces 'tool-kit' genes; those which do specific jobs during development, and then explains how changing when and where they are expressed can change the final developmental outcome. The context of gene expression is all important. In the second part of the book, Carroll moves into proper evolutionary biology but always from an Evo-Devo angle. He talks about changes in limb structures, segmentation, and butterfly wing patterns - all of which are neatly explained by changing the patterns of expression of 'tool-kit' genes.

I still meet people who consider themselves well versed in evolutionary biology but who don't know the first thing about developmental biology. Evolution is the change in development over time. Having one without the other is like being a physicist without knowing any maths - it's just silly. This book, more than other popular science evolution texts (I'm thinking Dawkins, Gould, Zimmer... the list is long) really brings development into focus and keeps it there as a central theme. For that reason, this is an important book and not just another evolution pop-sci.

The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes
The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes
by Denis Noble
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book, 30 Dec. 2011
The Music of Life is a short polemic proclaiming systems biology and the need to move away from dogmatic reductionist thinking. All in all, he does a good job of showing us the flaws in the reductionist approach. He also discusses the role of language and metaphor in science (which is more deeply engrained than I realised), inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the Buddhist take on the 'self'.

He argues strongly against genetic determinism, showing nicely that the genome is not some sort of 'blueprint' or 'book of life'. Part of me thinks this book came out twenty years too late. Any modern biologist would not doubt the importance of viewing life at multiple levels or the importance of epigenetics; and his constant insistence that what he was saying is 'shocking' was just annoying.

Throughout the book, Noble uses the metaphor of music. I thought this was this largely unhelpful and I often found his description of the straight biology easier to follow than the metaphorical description that preceded it!

Nevertheless, this is an important book because the vast majority of molecular biologists are reductionist. This is not just a choice of the way to study things, more it seems engrained in how many scientists think about life. I think most scientists will accept Noble's arguments (there is nothing particularly novel or revolutionary here) but they will still go back to the lab and do reductionist science and think in terms of genes making proteins that perform functions in isolation: all things that Noble has tried to dispel. We do need more systems biologists (physiologists) integrating things at all kinds of different levels. At the moment, they are massively outnumbered by traditional molecular biologists.

As Noble himself describes in his introduction, this book could have been called 'What is Life?' This would have been a more informative title and I think nicely sums up what this book is about. It is a very good description of life as a network of interacting genes/proteins/cells/tissues, with no level being a 'master regulator' of the others or 'determining' the others.

This book should be read by people interested in biology and certainly students of all life sciences. I would like to think it might inspire some physical scientists to entire biology, as they will be needed for systems approaches! I wouldn't recommend it to non-biologists who are looking for an account of evolution or molecular biology though - there are other popular science books that do it better. That's not a failure of this book; it's just not what this one is about.

The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless
The Infinite Book: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless and Endless
by John D. Barrow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Average science writing about an interesting topic, 29 Dec. 2011
This is the first John D. Barrow book I have read. It hasn't left me scouring the bookshop for his others.

'The Infinite Book' is a fairly punchy guide to a collection of topics that revolve around the subject of infinity. Quite a large number of topics are tackled: philosophy of infinity, religion and its view of the infinite, various mathematical and physical paradoxes, the big bang and inflation, the consequences of living in an infinite universe/multiverse, time-travel, solving infinite problems in a finite time with so-called infinity machines, the consequences of living forever. The book is even biographical in places, taking a chapter to look at the life and work of Georg Cantor.

This all sounds very interesting to the lover of popular science. However, perhaps because so many topics have been taken on, few if any of them have been dealt with sufficiently. The whole book seems like a collection of summaries or abstracts to other books that deal with these topics more thoroughly. At the end of most chapters, I was left with a 'is that it' feeling.

Nevertheless the book does have some good points. I found the the discussion of the Infinity Machine intriguing. I also enjoyed ideas about advanced civilisations creating simulated universes in which simulated civilisations could evolve.

There isn't much mathematics in this book either (I'm not sure if this is a good or a bad thing). Barrow does a good job of describing how ideas about the infinite were gradually incorporated into mathematics, but he says almost nothing about how modern mathematics views/uses infinity. Most of the final half of the book is about cosmology. The final chapter discusses the psychological and sociological ramifications of eternal human life. Not much mathematics to be found there. Thus, I'd imagine that if you are interested in a maths popular science book, this is not the one. Physicists might be more interested.

I'm going to end with a little rant. This book is broken up into a lot of very short sections: there is 11 chapters in the 275 pages of my edition, and each of these is further split into 5-12 sub-sections, some of which are further split! This means you rarely read more than 2-3 pages without starting a completely new section which does not always follow on very closely. This totally breaks up the reading and detracts from the experience. Furthermore, each sub-section starts with a quote, often not related to the text. This was very annoying after reading about 50 of them. Finally, the author insists on including excerpts from the work of others (sometimes these can be over a page in length). I would prefer the author to describe the work of others in a consistent style rather than just quoting them at length.

In sum, I learnt a few interesting things from this book but I didn't care much for the style and thought the author could have done a better job explaining things a bit more deeply.

River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (SCIENCE MASTERS)
River Out Of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (SCIENCE MASTERS)
by Prof Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun read, 27 Dec. 2010
'River Out of Eden' is another good read from Richard Dawkins. Everything you'd expect from Dawkins is here: clear explanations; smooth (and at times brilliant) prose; unquestionable logic.

The book is a collection of five (fairly long) essays dealing with ancestory, the evolution of seemingly designed objects such as eyes, the sex ratio and more. The final chapter discusses the various stages that life on Earth (and presumably elsewhere) go through before reaching a point of 'maturity' to spread away from the home planet.

As ever, Dawkins takes the opportunity to have a few rants about God and religion, but this is kept to a minimum; it is a book about natural selection and the main message is that DNA (that immortal replicator) spreads, and genes that spread most successfully (largely by cooperating with other genes in the bodies of organisms (or gene pool)) are the one's that come to populate the Earth.

Without doubt, fans of Dawkins will enjoy this book. However, I wouldn't recommned it to new readers on evolution, natural selection or Dawkins himself - start with The Blind Watchmaker or even The Ancestors Tale. People who already know and love Dawkins will find more good stories, enlightening information, and great writing in this volume.

As a side note, I'd love to hear what Dawkins has to say about epigenetics. Within this field are ideas about how events occuring in an organisms life can change gene expression (not the DNA sequence per se, but certainly the phenotype), which can be passed on to offspring. The return of Lamarkism? I certainly don't doubt that natural 'Darwinian' selection is the major player, but evidence is mounting that epigenetics might have a role in evoltion as well. Dawkins dismisses epigenetics in a footnote in The Greatest Show on Earth, but I would be interested if he could turn his full attention on the subject in a future book.

Anyway, aside over. It's a good read for fans of Dawkins

The Blind Watchmaker
The Blind Watchmaker
by Richard Dawkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Explaining the very improbable: biological complexity, 25 April 2010
This review is from: The Blind Watchmaker (Paperback)
'The Blind Watchmaker' is Dawkins at his very best. His mammoth intellect, his literary talent, and his ability to teach all rolled into one!

In this book, Dawkins describes how natural selection explains the evolution of complexity (the eye and echo-location are favourite examples). His major points include the non-random nature of selection, that adaptive change is gradual (cumulative selection), and that the illusion of design is nothing more than the result of natural selection.

Many of Dawkins chapters are very entertaining.
'Good Design' describes how bats use ultrasound to navigate the world in a truly remarkable way
'Making Tracks Through Animal Space' provides an excellent way of thinking about life and 'all possible organisms'
The real stand-out chapter for me is 'Explosions and Spirals', which focuses on sexual selection. Without using an mathematics, Dawkins masterly conveys some very complicated evolutionary theory. A great, and enlightening piece of writing.

The only part of the book I felt was misplaced was 'The One True Tree of Life' chapter. It just didn't seem to fit the rest of the book, and I'm not really sure what it added. It presented lots of different points of views on a topic (taxonomy) that Dawkins himself didn't seem too passionate about. I never fully understood why that chapter was there.

Having said that, overall the book is brilliant. Perhaps not as revolutionary as The Selfish Gene, but probably more enlightening for the layperson. I cannot recommend this work highly enough.

Principles And Problems In Physical Chemistry For Biochemists
Principles And Problems In Physical Chemistry For Biochemists
by Nicholas C. Price
Edition: Paperback
Price: £37.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear and well suited for the target audience, 9 Jan. 2010
This book is very good. It is written for undergraduate biochemists (and is basically the first year physical chemistry course given to Oxford Biochemists).

It covers the three key areas of physical chemistry: Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Atomic and Molecular Structure. It generally sticks to pure chemistry, but includes lots of biochemical examples. Some chapters are specifically about biochemical matters (e.g. macromolecule structure and bonding, enzyme kinetics, biochemical pathways).

Features / advantages:
1) Clear and simple writing style with plenty of easy to understand figures
2) Worked examples, separated from the main text which really provide insight into how the equations discussed in the text are used
3) Problem questions with fully worked answers
4) Sections summarising chapters, listing key points

The mathematical demads are minimal. Anyone with AS or A-level maths will find the maths in this book easy. Only very basic calculus is required.

I should note that this book does NOT discuss biophysical techniques (like X-ray crystallography or NMR spectroscopy or mass spectroscopy or uses of UV and IR radiation to probe macromolecules). This is not a failure of this book, it is simply not what this book is about (though some people seem to expect to find these sorts of topics in this kind of book).

The text clearly separates introductory topics with more complicated sections. For example, there is a chapter on single-step kinetics, which introduces some kinetic concepts, but then we move on to multi-step reactions and multisubstrate enzyme kinetics (more challenging sections). I find other books jump in to these more complicated areas without giving a firm grounding in the basics, but this book does not do that.

I was taught by Wormald and Ratcliffe, the authors of this edition, and both are fine teachers. The book is also an excellent teaching resource with clear writing, as well as questions with fully worked answers. Great for self-teaching as well as for helping with lectures on these topics.

This book is written for undergrad biochemists, and really is the clearest way that the physical chemistry needed for biochemists has been presented anywhere. A must for all biochemists.

The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality (Penguin Press Science)
The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality (Penguin Press Science)
by Brian Greene
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.68

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, 9 Jan. 2010
`The Fabric of the Cosmos' by Brian Greene is a truly remarkable work of science writing. It covers incredibly interesting topics, is beautifully written, and, most importantly, Greene really has the ability to teach, rather than just tell.

Brief breakdown:
The book begins with a tour of classical physics and special and general relativity, centring on a discussion of space and spacetime and whether these are absolute entities or not, using the classic thought experiment of Newton's bucket. This in an interesting way to approach the relativity theories, but I think they are better described in Greene's `The Elegant Universe'.

Next, Greene takes us into quantum mechanics, beginning with descriptions of interference and double slit experiments then centring on the EPR paradox. He describes Bell's theorem with a brilliant analogy, and really walks the reader through some of the difficult concepts of quantum entanglement. At the end of this section, I really began to appreciate the strangeness of our quantum universe.

Next, he turns his attention to time, and argues that if all of space exists somewhere, then so does all of time. I found this very intriguing. His discussions of the arrow of time, and how physical laws apply in reverse, were very interesting. He introduces us to the concept of entropy and the problems we face if we assume entropy increases in the future and the past. The Big Bang, and its thermodynamic legacy, pull us out of this particular `quagmire'.

Inflationary cosmology then takes over and we learn about the Higgs Field, quantum fluctuations in the early universe and expansion. He also discusses the origin of times arrow in terms of the low entropy of the early universe.

String theory and M-theory dominate the latter part of the book. There isn't really anything here that wasn't discussed in 'The Elegant Universe', but FOTC does discuss this topic in a more focussed manner.

Overall, Greene's book is stunning and left me with a sense of wonder. I was equally impressed with the material and the ability of Greene to teach it to me. By example, I often found myself asking questions as I read, and I almost always found that he had anticipated the questions, and answered them within the next paragraph or section.

A mammoth achievement that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn about what theoretical physics has to say about the workings of the Universe.

How We Live and Why We Die: the secret lives of cells
How We Live and Why We Die: the secret lives of cells
by Lewis Wolpert
Edition: Hardcover

37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Simple introduction to cells, but lacking real insight, 28 Dec. 2009
Wolperts 'How We Live and Why We Die' provides a decent introduction to cell theory and the basic workings of cells. It covers topics such as how proteins are made, how gene expression is controlled, the process of embryogenesis, how cells fight invaders, the origin of cancer, and more.

I am extremely passionate about these topics (I actively work in one of the fields), but Wolpert fails, in my opinion, to give anything but the most basic textbook discussions: mRNA goes to the ribosome and this is the machine that makes proteins; this cell moves over here and that one over there during gastrulation etc. He fails to portray the sense of wonder and amazement that I often feel when reading journals and other books about these issues. In fact his chapter on development (where he made his name) is the most disappointing and superficial.

I understand that he is aiming this book towards people with less training in the concepts than me, but that is not the point. I have no formal education past A-level in physics but Brian Greene's books have allowed me to glimpse the workings of the Universe according to modern theoretical physics. If he can do that, I would hope someone like Wolpert could write a book which instills similar sense of wonder about life and cells. This is not that book.

If you are a real beginner to cell biology i.e. if you have no idea what a gene is, or that proteins are made from amino acids, or that cells have membranes, then this might be a decent read to give you a very simple overview of molecular biology. But don't expect to overwhelmed with wonder. Don't expect to be finishing chapters feeling enlightened with a smile on your face.

As a detailed example, I take the chapter on embryogenesis, how we develop into humans from a single cell - the fertilised egg. Wolpert mentions his own French flag model of positional information, but he only touches on the amazing process of regeneration - how certain animals can re-grow limbs and how they know exaclty how big to make them (the best evidence for positional information). Rather than discuss the amazing process that development is, how an embryo can build itself whilst also keeping itself alive - had to absorb nutrients before we had a gut, had to exchange gas before we had lungs, had to build our central nervous system before we knew how to think. All of this development just happens. Rather than give us these sorts of insights, instead Wolpert offers us a garbled and confusing description of gastrulation - though very important, probably not the process someone who is being introduced to development really wants to know about.

Overall, a decent and fairly short introduction to some of the basic ideas of cell biology. Probably good for absolute beginners. But don't expect to be amazed by (1) average writing, or (2) the way he describes the biology.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 22, 2011 10:21 AM BST

Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Global Catastrophes: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Bill McGuire
Edition: Paperback

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The end of the world? Not if, but when., 9 May 2008
This book is very nice: well written and concise - ideal for the beginner who wants a broad coverage of a fascinating topic. This is certainly one of the better 'short introductions' on the market.

The introductory chapter serves as a good overview for the rest of the book, while the proceeding chapters about global warming and the possibility of an ice age are both good. The text is fact-heavy but still flows nicely, telling a clear story. While the authors own views are certainly evident, he also mentions the ideas of other scientists (some contraversial and some downright mad).

The book goes on to discuss the threat and possible consequences of geological events such as super-volcanic eruptions, mega-tsunami's and city-destroying earthquakes. He not only considers the Earth sceince behind these phenomena, but the economic impact is also covered, albeit superficially. I found the chapter about the 'Threat from Space' particularly interesting (and disturbing).

I give the book 4 stars and not 5 because, i my opinion, it lacked scientific depth. I believe, even in a book so small and introductory, that the author could have given a little more explanation of the science. Perhpas he neglected to do this in the fear of scaring off potential readers who don't want too much of an intellectual challenge, or perhaps he was concerned with making the book too long for the format of the series (though he does repeat himself several times, so cutting down the words would not have been too difficult). A bit more technical science would have been welcome.

Overall, a very nice read with a pessimistic (but probably realistic) outlook.

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