Sunday, 23 April 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Shadow panel

I have been on the shadow panel with Bookish BackGrrlScientistRuby Jhita and Amy Pirt, and today we announced our winner for the prize. 

It was When breath Become Air, and you can read far more about the panels decision here:

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Review: The Tidal Zone

The Tidal Zone The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Emma and Adam have been married for a number of years and have two daughters. Emma is a GP, and Adam has chosen to stay at home be the house husband. He has a little work at the university and is currently working on a history of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Though Emma is suffering with the stresses of the modern NHS, it is a happy family life. Then one day Adam receives a call from the school. Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. He rushes to the school, arriving shortly after the paramedics, and heads into the hospital with her.

As they come to terms with a daughter who has a serious illness, their whole family life is turned upside down. After a barrage of tests, the doctors are not completely sure what is up, so she is allowed home. As they come to terms with the changes they start to fret over the smallest things, worry over their other daughter and question things that happen to Adam’s mother that was never explained.

It is a sharp look at modern life, the way that we interact with each other. Moss has managed to write about the pressures that we place on ourselves, as well as those exerted by society with startling accuracy. It is a celebration of the mundane as well as those moments that draw a family together. However, it is a warning of how thin we stretch ourselves whilst failing to keep the work home life balance and a warning of how transient life can be.

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour #WBP2017

I was honoured to be asked to be a host on the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 blog tour, and today it is my turn. I have known of the Wellcome Trust for many years. The first time I heard of them when I was told about my great-uncle making models for them, prior to the Second World War. The next time they came on the radar was when a stipend from them paid for my wife to do her PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Their support for people to develop and explore ideas in the sciences has brought great benefits all around the world.

I do love a good short prize list, in particular, one with non-fiction titles in it and that is why I have followed the Wellcome Book Prize for a while now, normally reading one or two titles from it as and when it suits. This year because of the reading and reviewing I have been doing for Nudge, I have managed to read the entire non-fiction longlist for their website and I have now read the two shortlisted fiction titles. All this prior to the winner being announced.

Dropping some of the longlist titles to choose the six on the shortlist must have been hard as all the titles were worth reading, but the panel has decided on the list below:

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

How to Survive a Plague by David France (USA) Picador, Pan Macmillan

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (France) and translated by Jessica Moore, MacLehose Press

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (UK), Granta Books

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (UK), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House

Today I am going to be talking about The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I read this shortly after it was nominated for the Royal Society Prize and had been fortunate to get a review copy from my excellent local bookshop, Gulliver’s. But first an extract with many thanks to (The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (USA), The Bodley Head, Penguin Random House)

Extract from ‘Prologue: Families’

As I write this, organisms endowed with genomes are learning to change the heritable features of organisms endowed with genomes. I mean the following: in just the last four years—between 2012 and 2016—we have invented technologies that allow us to change human genomes intentionally and permanently (although the safety and fidelity of these “genomic engineering” technologies still need to be carefully evaluated). At the same time, the capacity to predict the future fate of an individual from his or her genome has advanced dramatically (although the true predictive capacities of these technologies still remain unknown). We can now “read” human genomes, and we can “write” human genomes in a manner inconceivable just three or four years ago.

It hardly requires an advanced degree in molecular biology, philosophy, or history to note that the convergence of these two events is like a headlong sprint into an abyss. Once we can understand the nature of fate encoded by individual genomes (even if we can predict this in likelihoods rather than in certainties) and once we acquire the technology to intentionally change these likelihoods (even if these technologies are inefficient and cumbersome) our future is fundamentally changed. George Orwell once wrote that whenever a critic uses the word human, he usually renders it meaningless. I doubt that I am overstating the case here: our capacity to understand and manipulate human genomes alters our conception of what it means to be “human.”

The atom provides an organizing principle for modern physics—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling matter and energy. The gene provides an organizing principle for modern biology—and it tantalizes us with the prospect of controlling our bodies and fates. Embedded in the history of the gene is “the quest for eternal youth, the Faustian myth of abrupt reversal of fortune, and our own century’s flirtation with the perfectibility of man.” Embedded, equally, is the desire to decipher our manual of instructions. That is what is at the center of this story.

As you can read from this snippet, it is a significant book. Mukherjee is right to point out that our mastery over the gene is as significant as it was for the atom last century, but, and this is a fairly large but, mastery does not equal control.

My original review for the book written back in August last year I think is still valid:

Genes are not only the key to life, but they hold the details of our history and our future too. In this book, Mukherjee takes us on a journey to uncover the origins of this master code and the story of discovering and deciphering it. It is a story that spans world history, but begins with a monk in an Augustinian monastery who discovers a unit of heredity in his study of peas. Mendel may not have been one of the first to be fascinated but the ideas of heredity, and he certainly wasn’t going to be the last. Darwin was one of the next with his discovery of evolution and the way that certain traits established themselves in the populations of finches on each of the Galapagos Islands.

As science advanced during the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, cells started to give up their secrets to the scientists that were studying them. Each discovery added to the knowledge of how each of us carries traits and characteristics from our parents. This dream of making the perfect human from good parents became the spectre that is eugenics, culminating in the horrors with the Nazi obsession with creating the perfect Aryan race and eliminating those that were deemed to be sub-human. Post world war two we knew more about the way that RNA and DNA worked, but no one could work out just how it did it. The brilliant X-ray images of DNA that Rosalind Franklin took gave Francis Crick and James Watson the insight to work out the construction of the beautiful double helix that is DNA. He describes the quest to map the entire human genome, a feat achieved by scientists working across the globe, who just beat a private company who had designs on patenting it.

He is eminently qualified to write this, as he is the assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. He brings us up to date with the latest research and discoveries in genetic research as well as posing the questions that we need to ask and answer as we learn how to change and write to the human genome. To cover all that we have found out about the gene, the book needs to be broad in scope. It is fairly detailed and occasionally baffling and incomprehensible to a non-scientist like myself, but thankfully not very often. Woven through the book too is the story of Mukherjee’s family and their reoccurring history of mental illness as it moved through the generations; it adds a nice personal touch to the book, showing just how our genes can affect us all. If you want a good overview of the history of the gene, you can’t go wrong starting here.

It is a book that has a lot to add to the discussion and wider public knowledge of science as a whole and health in particular. Mukherjee’s book highlights the enormous benefits that the science of genetics has brought humanity so far, as well as the enormous potential that this research has.

With all the books on the shortlist you will enrich your soul and your mind by reading them. Take a chance, pick one and give it a go; you’ll probably learn something too

There are a number of events taking place prior to the winning book being announced next Monday; details can be found here:

Monday, 17 April 2017

Review: Mend the Living

Mend the Living Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simon Limbeau is in search of that perfect wave. He knows it is out there, and perhaps this will be the day that he finds it, the forecast seems to indicate that it will be good. Rising just before 6 am, he ventures into the freezing morning to climb in the van with his friends to hit the beach. It is a journey Simon has undertaken hundreds of times. Waves were found, ridden and conquered and they pile back in the van trying to warm up. Chris turns the key in the van and begins the return journey; all their lives were just about to change for ever.

Simon was not wearing a seatbelt and as Chris dropped off to sleep, the van drifted to the left until it hit the pole. All three lads were rushed to hospital following the accident and parents were contacted. Marianne, Simon’s mum, gets to the hospital. Looking shell shocked, she is ushered into a meeting with the doctor. Simon’s condition is serious, very serious indeed.

So begins the sensitive telling of a story that is a parent’s worst dilemma. It is a short book, often captivating, always emotional, but occasionally dips a little to heavily into technical jargon. However, De Kerangal’s sparse prose is what carries this story, making what is an intensely charged read, a thing of beauty still. It is a sad, touching story, sensitively told.

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Review: Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America

Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America Miss-adventures: A Tale of Ignoring Life Advice While Backpacking Around South America by Amy Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having had an idea to quit her job and go backpacking around South America, Amy started to tell friends and family of her intentions. What she wasn’t quite expecting was the vast amount of advice that was proffered to her on what to see, where to go, what to do, and most frequently what not to do. Advice that was perhaps a little unnecessary and probably irrelevant too. So after her boss had told her that there was no money in travel writing and that she would come to regret it, she replied: ‘I’m going to do it anyway’.

So begins Amy’s full on adventure around a number of countries in South America, beginning right in the deep end, the Bolivian jungle. Here she manages to scare herself several times a day, swim in crocodile infested waters, and encounters spiders that she didn’t know could grow that large. Having just survived the jungle, climbing a mountain seemed like a good idea, didn’t it? She was joined by friends on various parts of the trip, as well as meeting loads of new people most of whom were friendly and occasionally those that weren’t.

All the way through the book Amy considers that advice that she had been given. She realised that some of the advice that had been provided was sound, and some, shall we say was less than helpful… Weighing up that provided by friends, against some from experts Amy slowly concludes who provides accurate guidance and when it should be listened to. Amy is a competent writer and the book is scattered with genuine laugh out loud moments, so much so I was getting odd looks when reading this at lunchtime and sniggering. If you like books written by Tony Hawkes, then this is right up your street.

I do hope though that her mother hasn’t read this book!

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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Blog Birthday

Just realised today that it is just over a year since I started blogging. I have posted just over 300 times, and have had over 8000 page views.

Thank you everyone!

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Review: The Otters’ Tale

The Otters’ Tale The Otters’ Tale by Simon Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Otters are one of our apex predators in the UK, but after the Second World War, they almost went extinct due to environmental and other pressures. That they have slowly clawed their way back as the rivers and streams that they live in became less polluted. The fact that they now they can be found in every county in the land is a conservation success and should be applauded. They are almost mythical though, they are seldom glimpsed, even when going looking for them, you may only hear a splash. You will find evidence that they are sound though, their spraints are fairly visible and you’ll probably come across the scattered remains of supper every now and again.

Even after buying a watermill on a chalkstream in Hampshire Simon Cooper didn’t expect to see one either. As he moved around the lake and streams that came with his property he began to find the evidence that they were some nearby, but it was finding a family of otters in the mill race, just feet from his desk, that he realised that he was the intruder on their territory. So begins this transitory relationship with this mother and four cubs, as Cooper spent more time watching and following their trial and tribulations of growing up and learning how to swim and feed and playing as you’d expect otters to behave.

Cooper’s daily observations have given us this well-written tale of the elusive creature that is the otter. He has used some artistic licence to write the story of Kuschta and her cubs, how she moved into the lakes, the liaison with the father and how she goes about raising and training them to hunt and survive. The story side is woven in with a raft of solid facts and detail on these fascinating creatures following them through the seasons as they live and thrive around the mill. A really good book on that most evanescent of creatures and a worthy addition to anyone’s natural history library.

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