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Customer Review

15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much more care needed, 3 July 2013
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This review is from: Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life (Hardcover)
I really wanted to like this book (or these books, if you prefer), but was let down so frequently that it was all I could do to finish it/them.

First the good points. Despite his very brief career of actually doing science, Adam has a reasonable breadth of knowledge of evolutionary genetics and synthetic biology, and quite of a lot of experience, through his job as a media editor at the journal Nature, in pitching his discussions for the intelligent lay person. He does this job well, certainly. One should not underestimate this - there are many professional academics who cannot do this, and if people like Adam do not have a stab, who is going to? Full-time academics like Dawkins, Jones and Stringer who can really write are rare - and one wonders how on earth they find the time. So far so good.

However, IMHO Adam has let himself down, and he has been let down by his publishers. Let me explain.

The first problem is that Adam thinks he has to jazz up the narrative with wordy trickery. I lost count of the number of times that an obscure word or metaphor was helicoptered in where there were several more usual alternatives. I have to say this is regrettably a common criticism of popular science authors - showing above all that they do not have faith that the material they are discussing can hold the readers' interest without these little explosions of verbal dexterity. For heaven's sake, if the origin and evolution of life, and its potential to be recreated in the future are not already topics of HUGE interest, something is seriously wrong.

Secondly, I am sorry to say Adam has suffered from a lack of competent copy-editing and proofreading. Any serious author knows that (despite the sexing-up and hero-ising of authors generally) the production of a first-class book is the result of a collaboration between the author, a sympathetic and knowledgable editor, and a similarly qualified proofreader. A copy editor may (largely) be said to "correct errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, style and usage" while a proofreader "uses care, judgement, skill, knowledge and experience in checking that the work of author, editor and designer/typesetter is satisfactory" - to catch any final errors including but not restricted to typos. It is rare that an author's draft does not benefit hugely from quality advice and revision in order to clarify the message. By definition, both editor and proofreader need genetics expertise, otherwise they cannot help.

There are enough examples of sloppiness to really get under my skin. A typical case off the top of my head is the repeated use, in discussion of the "O" level chemistry of amino-acids, of the Victorian term "carbolic acid" (also known more commonly as phenol, C6H5OH) instead of "carboxylic acid" meaning the acidic -COOH group possessed by all amino-acids. This is possibly an easy slip to make in the white heat of authorship (but not one any author would wish to be reminded of) but to be missed by everyone down the line is shocking.

Naturally I can only speculate from a reading of the final published book. But that is all any of us can do.

Finally I would take issue with what some nameless PR hack has written to adorn the dustjacket: "Dr Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster...". Adam is not a geneticist. He WAS a geneticist for a short time and duly completed a PhD in genetics some ten years ago, but since then he has not carried out any research work in this field and appears to have just one publication dating from his PhD project on Pax6. It is very wrong to describe an author in this way as it does a disservice to those working research academics who do find the time to write books for the interested lay public - who really ARE geneticists (this does not include me, in case you think I am carrying out special pleading). I should stress this is absolutely not to criticise Adam for the career path he has taken and been successful in: science desperately needs popular and engaging characters to spend quality time with researchers, intelligently interpret their latest work and present it in a way that is grown-up but accessible.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Jul 2013 16:55:33 BDT
Dr. Cook, in your fifth paragraph I think you are overlooking the difference between the cellular processes of 'proofreading' and of DNA repair.

Proofreading is done during DNA synthesis; it checks that each new DNA bases is correctly complementary to the base in the template strand. DNA repair is done at any time if the DNA has undergone any physical alteration that changes its structure. Sometimes these alterations change a correctly paired base into an incorrect one, but more often they create aberrant molecular structures that must be removed and replaced.

I'm not sure how well either of these processes can be aligned with the tasks done by literary proofreaders and copy-editors.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Jul 2013 18:42:50 BDT
Dear Rosemary

Yours is a good point. I was hasty in that I read "DNA repair" in the original book section as "DNA copying". I am happy to amend my review as a result.

Bearing in mind the task often faced by a copy-editor when they are presented by an author with a "damaged" MS, perhaps Adam is spot-on!

Best wishes


Posted on 29 Jul 2013 20:22:51 BDT
Hud says:
Regarding your comment on the <"flip-book" conceit> though you may find this not ideal, in a totally time constrained world (I literally have little time for most of my leisure activities) faced with a large collection of books in my local bookshop I and many others take the "look and feel" of a book as a signal that demands our attention. The perfect book (whatever that is) badly marketed simply would not come to my attention (as my phone bleeps with emails, twitter feeds, yammer posts), as the children ask a question, as the wife points out something new. This book grabbed my attention and before I had read a single word, I admired the "flip-book conceit", the typography, the font size, the colours and most importantly the writing style. That took around 30 seconds and then I decided that i would NOT drop it for another book vying for my attention and would open a random page and read it. I must say that Adam Rutherfords publishers got it spot on because I then purchased it! :-)
I then proceeded to read it.

I am sure there are a ton of excellent science books that I sadly never get to because they simply cannot command my attention (poor marketing) bombarded as I am by the massive deluge of information we in the west sadly have mired ourselves, consuming and replicating like viruses gone mad.

It will not surprise you that the following week I purchased Stpehen Emmot's bright orange novella style book screaming 10BILLION at me! :-)

Posted on 6 Aug 2013 22:40:28 BDT
M. D. Holley says:
I take issue with this review. It tells little about the book, or about what Dr Cook thought of it. It comes across as being rather snobbish and condescending. I find the flip book concept neither a 'conceit'' nor 'genuinely horrible', but I do find Dr Cook's review to be so.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Aug 2013 20:06:18 BDT
I am grateful to MD Holley for the comments, however on re-reading my review, I find no reason to withdraw or modify anything. I have praised Adam where I consider it is due (and it is - I would never be able to do what he does) and given my reaction to what I think are the book's weaknesses - at least partly to counter the inevitable dust-jacket puff quotes from Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain. Any science writer aiming for the popular market like a laser-guided missile, especially a young one, should thrive on criticism, even if they disagree with it. Indeed, MD Holley has written some highly critical reviews. No doubt they were spot-on, and the authors benefited from the balanced views expressed.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Feb 2014 06:08:36 GMT
Barbara says:
I thought this was an excellent review! I did enjoy the book, but the sheer number of typos, grammatical errors and other issues really bothered me. Admittedly, by the time I read a mis-spelt 'van Le(e)uwenhoek' for the third time, there was probably little left to do to win me back, but things didn't really stop there. You have to wonder how no one in the entire publishing process picked up on this, and other errors (haemoglobin mis-spelt?!). It's disappointing as this really affected my enjoyment of what otherwise would have been a thoroughly entertaining book.
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