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.
on 12 August 2013
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.
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. It is quite mind-boggling just how much these tiny channels do for us - always dependent on that electrical motive power.
For me - and it is fair to say that my biology tolerance is pretty low - the book did get a little repetitious in some ways, if only because of the central role of ion channels throughout. I suspect, though, for many, the connection with the functioning of the human body will keep that interest going - and Ashcroft has a light, approachable tone and makes sufficient ventures into the wider picture to keep the reader on-board. Overall a subject that clearly needed writing about, carefully and entertainingly revealed.
In some places this is not a light read. At the start of the book it goes into some detail, explaining the various ways that electricity is transmitted from cell to cell and the various triggers and controls for this.
However, even if you struggle with these sections (as I did to some degree) it is a very worthwhile read. These aspects set the background for a host of entertaining articles about the research into electricity and the way it functions (or fails to function) within animal and plant life.
It's no wonder a favourable comment from Bill Bryson is on the cover - it's just the type of writing that he excels at.
The Victorians electrocuting each other for entertainment. Goats that fell over whenever a train passed and blew its whistle. Why electric eels don't electrocute themselves (generally) and how the platypus and other creatures find prey in the darkest of conditions.
The heart condition of the singer Meatloaf is described here, as well as Kerry Packer - and why defibrillators in Australia are known as 'Packer Wackers'.
Squid are very popular creatures for researching electricity because their cells are so (comparatively) large.
How the muscles work and how memory works (as far as we know) and what research is pointing towards.
Edison's 'shows' which involved killing by electrocution larger and larger animals and his eventual development of the electric chair.
It is a thoroughly fascinating read - a blend of fascinating technical writing and entertaining trivia.
For someone who dropped out of Science, way back in the 70's this provided some easy catch up time. Especially as now Junior 1 is plodding trough the syllabus. An easy accessible style, going through the electrical charges that whizz through life to provide the ecstatic charge.
A geneology of thought, as she progresses from the early experiments to the later developments she was involved in. Much of scientific theory is tied up in gobbledygook to stop the lay reader from understanding the concepts. This however is the opposite, highly readable and very interesting.
One area I think could be developed are the links between this scientific research and the later works of Wilhelm Reich. She mentions him briefly, along with Jung, but the therapeutic uses of the work, not the use of ECT which is barbaric, degrading and ultimately a dead end, but the electrical charges sustained by biophilia and negated by depression could be explored further. Not I might add by using the scientific method, but by drawing on Reich's insights.
Apart from being useful in working with children, the book also prodded my curiousity about Reich's work further, as I had begun to think and reflect about this a while back. This book, simple as it is, for people like me, also pushes the therapeutic envelope,through reflection.
I thought the book provided a great insight, breaking all the ideas down into easily disgestible tracts. If you gave up on science and want a way back in, then this the book that provides that ladder. All you have to do is climb up and imbibe.
This is an amazing book and one well worth reading, if you want to know more about how we humans are wired electrically speaking. If you are studying this topic or just interested then this area of the human physiology, then read this book.
Ion channels are found in every cell and they are the spark of life, the electricity. Frances Ashcroft explains perfectly all you need to know about how we are what we are and other creatures, too and the role electricity has to play. As someone who has problems with their nervous system, electricity is an engrossing theme!
Written in a humorous way and infinitely enthralling.
Would recommend wholeheartedly.
Frances Ashcroft is a physiologist at Oxford University whose work has provided crucial insight into how insulin secretion is connected to electrical activity in cells such that children born with one form of diabetes can control it using oral medication instead of regular and painful insulin injections.
The Spark of Life looks at the flow of ions and how the production of electricity in animals can explain evolutionary biology
There are some very interesting chapters on vision and hearing, descriptions of what an electrocardiogram reveals about the state of the heart, an account of how the heartbeat is generated and an evaluation of current knowledge of the electrical basis of brain function.
Plus she examines human afflictions, such as cystic fibrosis and myasthenia gravis, and how they produce their awful symptoms, how color blindness works, and why defibrillators can save lives. We learn why puffer fish can poison, how the venom of the black widow spider does its job, and how electric eels and the torpedo fish produce electricity and sharks identify electric fields so they can hunt in the dark.
The science can be heavy to get through at the end of a hard day so you may need to be a bit more awake than when you read a fiction novel. Nevertheless a very interesting and well written book of life.
I have not given this book five stars, because, through no fault of the author, I couldn't quite get to grips with a number of the detailed scientific explanations. I must reiterate that this is the fault of the reader, not the writer, who by dividing the book into very short chapters and beginning the book with the history of electricity [which surprisingly went back to the 16th Century], does help grasp the books main purpose - to explain how and why life on earth can only function through electrical impulses. Even the story behind the two Nobel prizewinners, who were able to measure the electricity, was of real interest.
I often wish that Adam Hart Davis could have been my history teacher - now there is another person who would without doubt have sparked my interest in science - Frances Ashcroft.
I did manage to get to grips by some of the more esoteric concepts, but only by re-reading several paragraphs. That might seem to make the book heavy going, but no, because many of the matters were so interesting that it would have been wrong not to have understood them - after all, they are in the main, highly relevant to the human condition.
The weritten word is accompanied by illustrations which were an essential aid to understanding.
on 24 June 2012
Frances Ashcroft is to cell biology what Brian Cox is to particle physics. Both bring what are highly complex and specialist subjects to the general reader and make them accessible. They bring a sense of excitement and meaning to their subject, which is both inquisitive and insightful but never banal.
The author is an innovatory scientist who specializes in the functioning of the pancreas, the beta cells in particular. Those cells produce insulin, a vital hormone that allows glucose to pass into all body cells, hence providing the fuel that converts into energy. What Ashcroft doesn't know about the pancreas, isn't worth knowing.
She has researched extensively the tiny trap doors in the cell's walls, protein ion channels, that control the passage of glucose into the cell. The fact is she actually discovered the very mechanism of this action in her laboratory. She relates this event in a way that conveys the sheer joy of discovering something entirely new, entirely wonderful. Makes you almost want to be a lab rat. I got the same sense of discovery reading her recollection of the event as in Crick and Watson's description of their hunt for the means with which DNA molecules replicate. Awe inspiring stuff.
Her book covers material that illustrates just why we have come to recognize that we along with all other animals, run on an electrical charge in one form or another. All regions of the body use the same physiology to obtain the energy to function, from the brain to the kidneys to the skin. Ashcroft relates the history of how biology discovered how synaptic transmitters work, to how the human genome project has accelerated the search for cures for common diseases.
If there's a more enjoyable science book published this year, I will be amazed.
I thought this was a terrific book. The subject perhaps sounds a little dry, but Frances Ashcroft writes exceptionally well and shows, with genuine enthusiasm and great expertise, how the electrical systems of the body determine so much of its ability to function and their effect on our everyday (and not so everyday) lives. She is at the forefront of research in this area (specifically ion channels) and her depth of knowledge and understanding are apparent throughout the book.
Ashcroft explains the molecular mechanisms by which electrical signals are transmitted in the body, their effects and their vital importance with great clarity and very interestingly. She often draws on examples of familiar (and not so familiar) illnesses and the effects of well-known poisons to illuminate what she is saying, and the book is well illustrated with very clear line-drawings which I found invaluable. I found the whole thing fascinating and although this certainly isn't a book which you can read like a novel, I often found myself engrossed and wanting to read just a bit more.
If you have any interest in science this book will interest you. It isn't always a light read and requires some pretty serious concentration in places, but the effort is well worth it. Some background knowledge of chemistry or biochemistry certainly helps but is by no means essential, and anyone who has tried Brian Cox's books, for example, would find this on a comparable intellectual level but with far less mathematics and fewer utterly counter-intuitive ideas. This is one of the best science books for the general reader which I have read for some time and I recommend it very warmly.