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review 2018-06-17 19:40
The Equations of Life
The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution - Charles S. Cockell

[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.]

Well, that was a pretty informative read. A little difficult to get into at times (although I suspect half of it was because I was trying to read it when I was too tired), but definitely informative.

To be honest, I’m not that well-versed in equations in general. I can solve basic linear equations with two unknowns, that kind of thing; just don’t ask me to memorise really complex ones. So, I admit that, at first, I was hesitant to request this book, thinking that maybe it’d be out of my reach. Fortunately, while it does deal with equations, it’s not just page after page filled with numbers and symbols, and the author does explain what each term of each equation stands for. In the end, this was all fairly understandable, both the math and the writing itself.

The book doesn’t simply deal with equations either, and delves into astrobiology and basic atomic and particles physics (electrons -are- subatomic particles, after all, and knowing what part they play in atomic interactions is useful to understand what exactly happens at the biological molecular level, too). In fact, I found that a couple of chapters do fit in nicely with quantum theory, if you’re interested in that as well, since they explain essential interactions at shell level. I hadn’t studied chemistry since… at least 21 years, but this sent me back to my old classes, and I realised that I still possessed the required knowledge to get what the author was talking about. Which is great, because 1) I’m interested, 2) I like it when I grasp something that old me would’ve dismissed as ‘too hard’, 3) did I say I’m interested?

Last but not least, the book also contains a list of references that I’ll try to check at some point. Not all of them, of course, but since he points to Sean B. Carroll and his works on evo-devo, that’s a win in my little world.

All in all, this was a set of really interesting and intriguing theories, theories that make a lot of sense when you think about it and take time to observe nature around you. (Why did animals develop legs and not wheels? Well, inequal terrain and all that… Logics, logics…) And if you’re wondering about the possibility of other forms of life, either carbon-based on other planets or not even carbon-based, the author also explores this, going to demonstrate why it may or may not work (hence why a basic lesson in chemistry is provided). A solid 4.5 stars for me (I just think it dragged slightly in the last chapter).

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review 2018-06-07 19:19
Facts, anecdotes, some opinions, and a very engaging way of learning about the human body.
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes - Nathan H. Lents

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

When I saw this book on offer, I could not resist. I studied Medicine and have been fascinated by Biology and the Natural Sciences for ages. I have also thought and often commented on our (mostly mine, but yes, most of the issues are general, not exclusive to me) flawed design, no matter how superior we feel to the rest of the species that share the planet with us. In a later chapter of the book, the author sums it up observing that if we participated in an Olympic Games-style contest that included all of the Earth’s species, we would not win at anything, apart from perhaps decathlon (or chess if it was included), as we are generalists. We might not be able to compete with the physical prowess shown by many other species (we are not the fastest, the strongest, the best hunters, the ones who jump higher or who can run for longer), but we can do many things to a reasonable level. And yes, we are pretty intelligent (however we choose to use our minds).

There is enough material to fill several books under the general title of this book, and Lents chooses pretty interesting ones (although I guess some will appeal to some readers more than others). He talks about pointless bones and anatomical errors, our diet (here he talks about our tendency to obesity and our need to eat a varied diet due to the fact that our bodies have lost the ability to synthesise a number of vitamins, amino acids… while other species do),junk in the genome (issues to do with our DNA), homo sterilis (we are not very good at reproducing as a species), why God invented doctors (about our immune system and autoimmune diseases, cancer…), a species of suckers (about cognitive biases. The title of the chapter refers to P.T. Barnum’s edict ‘a sucker born every minute’ although as the author notes, this is an underestimate), and he discusses the possible future of humanity in the epilogue. There is a fair amount of information contained in this book, and that includes some useful illustrations, and notes at the end (I read an ARC copy, but it is possible that the final version contains even more documentation and resources). It is an educational read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I listened to the book thanks to the text-to-speech facility, and it suits it well, as it has a very conversational tone and manages to impart lots of information without being overbearing or obscure.  I read some reviews suggesting that it was so packed with facts that it was better to read it in small bites. Personally, I read it in a few days and never got bored of it, but it might depend on the reader’s interest in the subject.

I was familiar with some of the content but I appreciated the author’s take and the way he organised the materials. Although I enjoyed the whole book, I was particularly interested in the chapters on genetics (the DNA analysis and the identification of specific genes have moved on remarkably since I completed my degree) and on cognitive biases. As a doctor, I also agreed with his comments about autoimmune diseases, the difficulties in their diagnosis, and how these illnesses can sometimes be confused with psychiatric illnesses (being a psychiatrist, I know only too well this can happen). Of course, as is to be expected from the topic, the book reflects on the development of the species and discusses natural selection and evolution, and I was fascinated by the reviews of people who took his arguments as personal attacks on their beliefs. I agree that some of his interpretations and his hypothesis of the reasons for some of these flaws can be debatable, but that does not apply to the facts, and I did not feel the book is intended as a provocation but as a source of information, and entertainment. As the writer notes, we remember better (and believe in) anecdotes and stories than we do dry data. (I am not an expert on the subject but was fascinated by the comments on his blog.)

I found the book fascinating, and as a writer, I thought it was full of information useful to people thinking of writing in a variety of genres, from science-fiction (thoughts about how other species might evolve crossed my mind as I read it), historical fiction (if we go back many years), and any books with a focus on human beings and science.  I would recommend checking a sample of the book to see if the writer’s style suits the reader. I highlighted many lines (and was surprised when I learned that female Bluefin tunas don’t reach sexual maturity until they are twenty years old and was pleased to learn about the important roll old female orcas play in their society) but I particularly like this one:

Scurvy is a dystopian novel written by the human body.

A great read for those who prefer non-fiction and fact-packed books, perfect for people with little time, as it can be picked up and savoured in bite-size instalments, and a book that might pique our interest in and lead to further research on some of the topics. Experts are unlikely to find new information here, but other readers will come out enlightened and with plenty to think about. I strongly recommend it.

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review 2018-05-11 15:53
Human Errors
Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes - Nathan H. Lents

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

I found this to be both an informative and entertaining read. While the author doesn’t delve very deep into details (each subject in each chapter would probably warrant a book of its own), and although I wish there had been more developed explanations at times, I’m also aware that one book couldn’t tackle everything in one go—and he nevertheless provides enough information for a reader to go on research some more later on a given topic.

I already knew some of the ‘human errors’ presented in the book (such as junk DNA and mutations), but definitely not others, such as why we get so many headcolds (our sinuses placed the wrong way), why we do actually make our own B12 vitamin but can’t use it (same with other vitamins—and this is why we need a varied diet, with all the problems it entails), or why our ways of procreating are, in fact, very inefficient compared to those of other mammals. So, discovering all this was fascinating, and the explanations provided also satisfy the unavoidable ‘why’ questions that rose immediately after (I’m very much a why person; every physician who attended me since I’ve learnt to speak can testify to this). For instance, we lost the ability to make our own vitamin C, whose absence will lead to scorbut and kill us; but the mutation that led to this defect wasn’t erased through evolution because it happened in areas where fruit was easily available, and a diet of fruit would compensate for our rotten GULO gene… until the latter stuck, happily passed around to descendants.

I liked that some explanations went a bit further: it’s not only about this or that physical defect, but also about how we’re still wired for survival techniques and reactions dating back to prehistoric times, and how some of our modern behaviours are thus impacted. An extended example would be gambling, and why people in general have irrational reactions such as ‘now that I’ve lost ten times in a row, I -must- win, there’s no other way’ (though statistically, you could lose an 11th time), or will bet more and more when they’re on winning streak, and risk losing it all or more, rather than save those earnings. Those would go back to the way we interpreted situations to learn from them and survive (man sees a lion in a bush, concludes bushes often hide a lion, and then avoids bushes). Same with optical illusions, due to our brains’ ability to ‘fill in the blanks’.

On the side of actual errors, I noticed a few (redundant words or phrases, that a last editing pass would probably remove). Nothing too bad, though.

Conclusion: Due to the lack of deeper details and general simple writing, this book is probably more for laypeople rather than people with a strong scientific background—but even then, there’s still a chance that some of the ‘human errors’ may still be of interest to them.

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review 2017-12-24 04:11
Genetics gone wild...and woolly
Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures - Ben Mezrich

YES. That is literally what I have written first in my notes for today's book review. Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History's Most Iconic Extinct Creatures by Ben Mezrich is the perfect mixture of technical science and literary narrative. This book tells the story of Dr. George Church and the Revivalists (a group under his tutelage) who are trying to do what has been thought impossible: Bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction. (I have to wonder if the author received a financial backing from this group because if he didn't then he certainly deserves one. He's a major fanboy.) Mezrich covers not only their attempts at this breakthrough in science but also their competition from Seoul which owns the market on DNA cloning. The company in Seoul believes it is possible to find a complete DNA strand while Church's group thinks that the DNA will be too degraded. They're working from pieces of DNA and splicing together traits unique to woolly mammoths with the hope that a viable fetus can be carried by an Asian elephant. A scientific group dedicated to the reversal of extinction of local flora and fauna in Siberia has begun work on Pleistocene Park which is most likely going to be a functioning reality but will take several years. This is where the woolly mammoths (who wouldn't be technically true mammoths) will reside. The controversy and hubris of scientists (especially geneticists who write DNA/RNA) is extensively discussed and is fascinating to me (and I'd imagine to most laymen). However, this isn't only about the woolly mammoth. It's also an in-depth biography of George Church and how he came to be one of the leading figures in genetics. Total 10/10.


What's Up Next: Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun


What I'm Currently Reading: it's 2 days til Christmas so I'm all over the place


Source: Https://readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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