Book reviews

Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari


From the author of Sapiens (see below), Homo Deus is a projection into the future of humankind. The writing style is an easy read in spite of the huge amount of information packed into each sentence. Yuval Noah Harari has a knack of painting Homo sapiens in a particularly brutal light and this book is no different. The focus is now on the role that artificial intelligence is going to play in the eventual extinction of the species. Not a light book, neither by weight nor subject matter, but a fascinating must-read all the same.

The Periodic Table – Primo Levi


The Periodic Table was another book chosen for our science book club. It was a little different to the others in that it is not your typical popular science book, but it was truly beautiful. Each chapter relates to a different chemical element, with some of the references being quite tangible and others more direct. They usually reflect how he felt about people and situations he came across, including his experiences as a Jewish man in the Holocaust. One piece of advice — don’t judge this book by the first chapter. For a full review, click here

In Pursuit of Memory: The fight against Alzheimer’s – Joseph Jebelli 


This was the second book chosen to be read by our science book club, picked because it was on the shortlist for the Royal Society’s Book Prize eventually won by Testosterone Rex (below). In comparison, it is a much more typical popular science book. Joseph Jebelli has a familial connection to Alzheimer’s and refers to this frequently, adding a soft, personal touch to the narrative. The rest of the story is packed full of the science behind Alzheimer’s, the efforts to find new treatments and some of the people affected by it. A full review can be found here

Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds – Cordelia Fine

Testosterone Rex HB.indd

This book was the first one selected for our lab science book club. It was chosen as it had recently been announced as the winner of the 2017 Royal Society’s Science Book Prize. Overall, it failed to meet the expectations of the group who had hoped for more in the way of data and robust experimental evidence. Whilst it does have some interesting anecdotes, it often felt repetitive and, at less than 200 pages, lacking in content. Considering the calibre of shortlisted books that it was up against, Testosterone Rex was a disappointment. Full review can be found here.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The stories in our genes – Adam Rutherford


On reading this book, my lasting impression was that it is a funnier, more sciencey version of Sapiens (see review below) that makes you feel less guilty for the antics of your ancestors. Adam Rutherford is witty and his jibes at pseudoscience and companies that make money from it keeps the tone light. He discusses the discovery of Richard III, the spread of the Black Death and whether redheads could ever die out in lots of detail without becoming dull. He often uses writing and language as an analogy to the genetic code in possibly the best way I have encountered so far. And you’ll definitely have fun cracking his cryptic message to the late great Fred Sanger. If, like me, you enjoyed Sapiens but could do without the extra moral weight then I can definitely recommend this book.

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind  – Yuval Noah Harari


I have been recommended Sapiens countless times and finally gave in. I am so glad I did. This book does exactly what it says on the tin (cover). It walks you through the history of Homo species, discussing the likes of Neanderthals and Denisovans and suggesting what may have caused Sapiens to be the only species left. The book covers religion, capitalism, empires and a huge amount more. It is a little dry in places but that is likely just my topic preference. I was left with a real sense of uncomfortableness and have actually become pescetarian as a result of reading this book; the descriptions about farming practises can be a very unpleasant read at times. If you are looking for a book that will indeed give you a brief history of humankind, this is the one for you.

A Crack in Creation: The new power to control evolution  – Jennifer Doudna & Samuel Sternberg


CRISPR is one of the hottest topics in science right now. You can’t avoid it. It is being heralded as the go-to technique to fix all of your gene editing issues and CRISPR champions are full of optimism about how many diseases it is going to cure. But how was it discovered? And what do the scientists behind this monumental discovery feel about their work now? A Crack in Creation is written by one of the scientists who first described the technique, Jennifer Doudna. It is fast-paced and easy to read with any heavy science explained clearly and often with little diagrams too. Admittedly, it took me a little while to warm to Doudna but by the end I found myself sympathising with the reality that she now faces; has her career-defining discovery opened the door for unregulated germline editing? It remains to be seen, but in the meantime I definitely suggest having a read of A Crack in Creation and seeing the science from the other side of the lab bench.

The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? – Nick Lane


I am unashamedly a huge Nick Lane fan so getting a new installment from him was always going to be a treat. Fortunately, it didn’t let me down. The Vital Question is a pacey, thorough tour of the origins of life that leaves no stone or primitive cell unturned. Not a sentence is wasted or without meaning and information. Lane guides you through a series of hypotheses as to how life could have arisen, providing arguments for and against each, before helping you arrive to the conclusion that it simply must have occurred just as he suspects. If you are interested there is also an extensive appendix containing a large amount of extra reading. An absolute must for any science enthusiast.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

The late Oliver Sacks was a professor of neurology and a remarkable writer. He has written a collection of books based on the huge variety of patients he has treated for a wide range of brain-related conditions. In The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Sacks brings together a collection of extraordinary real life stories of bizarre and captivating quality. He explores the function of different areas of the brain by describing what happens to the person on the outside when something goes wrong within. A brilliant walk through neuroscience with the tone of a story, so much so that it is easy to forget that it is all true.

A is for Arsenic: The poisons of Agatha Christie – Kathryn Harkup


Agatha Christie’s extensive knowledge of chemistry and, specifically, poisons runs clearly throughout many of her bestsellers. Here, Kathryn Harkup leads you through a selection of the most interesting cases. Certain poisons are obviously included, like the ever popular arsenic and cyanide, but there is also room for nicotine and other more unusual choices. Harkup describes in details the mechanism of action, details how they have been used in real-life crimes and links continually to the Christie stories (crucially, without any sudden plot reveals). The strict structure of each chapter was effective, albeit a little repetitive by the end.

The Greatest Show on Earth: The evidence for evolution – Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins is outspoken and controversial but his writing is second to none. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins sets out step by step, logically and methodically, the irrefutable evidence for evolution. Interspersed with beautiful images, this book is long and a little daunting but so smoothly penned that it reads a lot more effortlessly than you would imagine. The extraordinary number of different examples from biology ensures that the reader is kept interested in what could otherwise have become tedious.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi


This is a book that will rewrite the way you view life and death. Diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 36, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi walks the reader through his final months with beautiful language and clarity of thought. The surgery anecdotes peppered throughout are interesting but the real attraction is the fluid writing style and bravery he shows to lead you to his end.

I Contain Multitudes: The microbes within us and a grander view of life – Ed Yong


This book is an absolute must-read for anyone who has an interest in microbiology. Ed Yong skilfully guides the reader through a huge selection of different microbiomes with wonderful illustrations of how they affect their hosts. Its mentions of tsetse biology appeal to me with my current research interests but it really does have something for everyone. It is very clearly written and easy to follow so really only a small understanding of science is enough to appreciate it.

The Mice Who Sing For Sex: And other weird tales from the world of science – Jack Lewis and Lliana Bird 


The Mice Who Sing For Sex has the potential to be a great book but, to me, falls a little short. It is packed full of a huge number of quirky science-related facts but seems lost as to who it is aimed at. Some topics discussed are definitely for the older reader but the tone is often over-enthusiastic and reminiscent of children’s television hosts. The science discussed is super cool and doesn’t need such a hard sell.

Here’s a sneak peek at couple from my favourite bookcase. Some old favourites and some new ones that I can’t wait to get stuck in to!