How We Live and Why We Die: the secret lives of cells Paperback – 1 Apr 2010
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'The secret lives of cells' shouldn't be kept a secret, and Wolpert makes a good start at breaking the silence. . . . Impressively up to date.--Helen Pickersgill
In How We Live and Why We Die: the secret lives of cells, distinguished biologist Lewis Wolpert explains how cells provide the answers to fundamental questions about our lives.See all Product description
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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.
The first couple of chapters are a very dry procession of facts, racing through a grounding in cells and their construction with an almost autistic lack of descriptive colour or flair, illuminating asides or perceptive discourse. The book drops rapidly downhill from there. The writing is of a very poor quality, and the editor of this book ought to be ashamed. Early on we are told "there are about two metres of DNA molecules in our cells". For a newcomer to the subject, this is ambiguous - does he mean two metres of DNA in total across all our cells? Or two metres of DNA in every cell? A moment's thought would have lead the author to write "there are about two metres of DNA molecules in each of our cells", removing ambiguity and increasing the wonder inherent in this fact.
Wolpert also constantly gets confused with verb-subject agreement. For instance, on page 36 we have "...adding back the phosphate group when food like sugars are broken down". When food are broken down? Or, on page 112, "At an early stage of development the structure of the embryos of human males and females are indistinguishable". The structure are indistinguishable? Very poor indeed.
There are also some annoying repetitions, which once again any editor with a brain should have caught. On page 177, we have "Cancer has its origin when a single cell suffers an alteration in its genetic constitution". On THE NEXT PAGE, "With cancer, cell multiplication gets out of control due to an abnormality that arises in just a single cell". Turn the page and read "Almost all the cancers have their origin in a single abnormal cell". ALRIGHT, WE GET IT! It starts with a single cell!
Other confusions occur in the text. For example, on page 37 we are told that "for each molecule of glucose that is broken down, two molecules of ATP are made", then on the very next page "About 30 molecules of ATP are produced for every molecule of glucose broken down". Eh? Is it two, or thirty? It's only upon rooting around the rest of the text that you guess that the first sentence refers to the production by cells themselves, the second refers to mitochondria...I think.
This short book is full of woeful stuff like this, and the overall effect is of a book dashed off to spec, rushed to complete an agreement with a publisher. Probably for the same reason, i.e. that the book is sloppy and rushed, there are absolutely no diagrams in the text. When the writing is of such poor descriptive quality, a number of well-chosen illustrations would have assisted immensely to the understanding of the concepts in the book, some of which are not simple to understand, as well as adding a much-needed splash of visual and mental interest to what is a very dry writing style.
There are some good discussions of the splendid, astonishing world of our cells, but after having presented a mind-blowing, awe-inspiring concept, Wolpert is too often content just to jump onto another subject, with very little further discussion on subjects that clearly inspire and amaze him.
A very poor book.
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