Book Review

No Impact Man: Saving the planet one family at the time

In this book, the author, Colin Beavan, describes his search for a sustainable lifestyle. His goal is to live as a No Impact Man, with his wife and baby daughter in New York City. Throughout the book, Beavan investigates not only sustainable solutions for an environmentally friendly lifestyle, but also questions as to whether our large impact on the planet actually makes our lives happier. Personally, I like the idea of an eco-friendly lifestyle, but at the same time I happily accept the plastic bags Tesco conveniently offers, and turn up the heating to warm my draughty single glazed room. A hypocrisy in which I am not alone: how many of us rather close our eyes to this global problem thinking we can’t make a difference anyway? The claim that Beavan would show me how “we can realistically live a more eco-effective and content life in an age of inconvenient truths” thus appealed to me. Read more »

Aglow in the dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence

The description, genetic manipulation and application of biofluorescence, the process by which light is emitted from certain cells, has transformed biology. These advances are opening new avenues of scientific discovery and exploration, have made it possible to gain detailed insights into the world of cells, and now form a fundamental component of the molecular biologist’s toolkit.  Read more »

The Sky's Dark Labrinth

When asked to review a quasi-fictional tale of scientific intrigue, I was hesitant. A physicist reading a scientific work of fiction is like a historian reading a Dan Brown novel. I assumed the technical inaccuracies would merely irritate. Yet, The Sky's Dark Labyrinth was a revelation. According to his biography, the author Stuart Clark is a "star of British astrophysics teaching" and thus firmly knows what he is talking about. The Sky's Dark Labyrinth's main strength is that it distills the technical complexities of what Kepler and Galileo grappled with and understood, without compromising the immensity of their discoveries. Read more »

The Psychopath Test

With the TV show Dexter turning a serial killer into its main protagonist, and with real madmen all-too-frequently in the headlines, the question of who is and who isn't a psychopath may concern more people than just the occasional worriwart. In his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson recounts his search for an answer; who are the pyschopaths?

Ronson describes his encounters with many extraordinary characters, including some that are possibly or definitely psychopaths. The central person of the narrative, however, is not a psychopath, but a psychologist by the name of Bob Hare. Hare is the creator of the Psychopathy Checklist, eponymous 'psychopath test' of the book title, a state of the art methos for diagnosing pyschopaths. Based on twenty personality traits, it uses characteristics such as a ‘grandiose sense of self-worth’ or a ‘lack of empathy’ to decide whether the person across from you is a psychopath. Read more »

Not Exactly - In praise of vagueness

How tall is a tall man? Most of us would say that a height of 1.85m is tall, but what about 1.84m or 1.75m? And what about 1.60m - no, that is definitely short. Where do you draw the line if there is indeed a line to be drawn? Why is ten 'a lot' when we talk about children in a family but 'a few' when we talk about cars in a street?

The problem is that expressions like 'tall', 'short' and 'a few' are vague. In his book, Kees van Deemter explores this attribute of human communication through linguistics, mathematical logic, philosophy, sociology and artificial intelligence and describes the underpinnings of vagueness, its properties and its ubiquitous use.

We learn how words like tall, poor, heavy or blue, that are so difficult to analyse even with the most advanced tools that mathematics can offer, can still be used in everyday situations without causing any trouble for the people who use them. Read more »

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go brings a whole new meaning to 'organ donation'. Narrated by 31 year old Kathy as she looks back on her school days at Hailsham, author Kazuo Ishiguro explores a dark and distorted version of the modern world. The students at Hailsham are organ donors; cloned to provide spares until the day that they 'complete'.

This book highlights the social implications of human cloning, as it explores the students’ lack of understanding and realisation behind their being, as well as the public reactions to it: “Art students, that’s what she thought we were. Do you think she’d have talked to us like that if she’d known what we really were?” Read more »

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

If you have ever tried your hand at cell culture (the process by which cells are grown under controlled conditions in the lab), then you will probably have come across HeLa cells, the most widely propagated continuous cell line. I once cultured these whilst studying the protein interactions that take place inside cells. At the time, I didn’t think about whom these cells had originally come from or what had caused them to divide indefinitely. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the story of the lady from whom these cells were taken. Read more »

The Lifestyle Diseases Timebomb

In a world where we are continuously told about the increasing risk of any number of diseases such as diabetes and heart-disease, Mismatch: The Lifestyle Diseases Timebomb breaks down humans' evolutionary journey in an attempt to answer the question of how these lifestyle diseases have come about. This book is a veritable voyage through the evolution of humans and a large number of other species. Read more »

Delusions of Gender

As a female scientist I have rarely considered myself one of ‘the weaker sex’, or imagined that the life ahead of me would be a battle against discrimination and oppression. Until now, that is. In Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine sets out to discover the truth about differences between men and women, at times painting a bleak picture of society’s attitude towards gender equality.

Descriptions of carefully constructed 21st century studies are interspersed with amusing quotes from Victorian gentleman scholars, who were concerned about the fate of women’s ovaries should they be allowed the vote. We may have gone through the suffragette movement, and a wave of liberation and bra burning in the 1970s, but how much has society really moved on? Read more »

Wonderful Life: the cosmic lottery of evolution

What if evolution had gone differently? What if a series of events had allowed species now extinct to survive? The world could be completely different and maybe humans would not exist. In this classic of the popular science literature, Stephen Jay Gould tells the story of a great scientific event, the discovery of Precambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale, British Columbia, and its impact on our understanding of evolution. Read more »

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