Nick Lane’s book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution has just won the Royal Society’s science book prize. The book chronicles the history of life on Earth through ten of evolution’s greatest achievements, from the origins of life itself to sex, eyes, and DNA.
The judges said that the ease with which Lane communicates these complex scientific ideas is what makes the book shine.
“Life Ascending is a beautifully written and elegantly structured book that was a favourite with all of the judges. Nick Lane hasn’t been afraid to challenge us with some tough science, explaining it in such a way that we feel like scientists ourselves, unfolding the mysteries of life,” said Maggie Philbin, chair of the judges. [The Guardian]
Instead of dumbing down the science, Lane’s words build the reader up to an understanding of evolution’s work.
Lane is a superb communicator. He knows exactly how much technical detail is required to provide satisfying explanations for the evolution of the genetic code, photosynthesis, complex cells, muscles and eyes, and his enthusiasm is catching. [The Guardian‘s book review]
Lane, a biochemist himself at University College London, believes in what he writes about. He studies and formulates hypotheses about the evolution of life for his job, and loves to communicate these ideas.
“Writing is my way to understand the world. I tried to get across the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know,” Lane explained. “It’s a thrilling tapestry that writing can take you across – you can ask any question you want, but there’s responsibility that goes with that.” [Nature]
Alas, this may be the last year of the prestigious book prize. It lost its sponsor, pharmaceutical company Aventis, in 2007, and has run out of funds.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: The origin of complex life – it was all about energy
Not Exactly Rocket Science: A possible icy start for life
The Loom: Book (P)review #1: Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
The Loom: Microcosm On the Longlist for Royal Society Science Book Prize (Along With A Dozen Great Books)
The Intersection: Everyday Practice of Science
Image: W. W. Norton & Company
Remember the kerfuffle over “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The 2008 cover story in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr contended that the barrage of information available on the Web is changing our brains, making us all shallow and deficient in our attention span. It also raised a ruckus across the blogosphere with Web users who didn’t like to be called “stupid.” Now, as if to challenge our cultural ADD, Carr has expanded that article into a book: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
In book reviewers, Carr finds a friendlier audience to his “more books and less Internet” thesis. The Boston Globe is impressed with the argument, if unimpressed with drawing out the argument to such a great length:
Carr’s argument rests on just three chapters (out of ten). He lays out, first, what we now know about the adult brain’s malleability, or “plasticity,’’ and then draws on a slew of recent studies to make the startling case that our increasingly heavy use of digital media is actually changing us physiologically — rewiring our neural pathways. And not necessarily for the better. “The possibility of intellectual decay,’’ Carr notes, “is inherent in the malleability of our brains.’’
Carr, promoting his book with a CNN essay, grabs neuroscience studies to bolster several claims: That people who multitask while online struggle to concentrate when they’re offline, that spending a lot of time on electronic devices hinders creative and critical thinking, and that students who surfed the Web during a lecture retained less information than those who listened with laptops closed. (That last one is kind of a “duh”—people who fill out Sudokus or read “Twilight” books during class probably don’t retain much, either.)
Many children have a “bug period”–a time of life when bugs and creepy crawlies are a source of endless fascination and learning. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson jokes that unlike other kids, he never grew out of his bug period.
Luckily for this biologist, his lifelong passion for ants has yielded a career rich in accomplishment and accolades. He is not just the world’s preeminent expert on the social behavior of ants, but also the recipient of the National Medal of Science and two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction. Now, at the age of 80, Wilson has taken a stab at fiction. His first novel, Anthill, combines two of his greatest loves–his childhood home, Alabama, and the ants that have been his lifelong friends.
Described as an “six-legged Iliad,” Wilson’s Anthill draws parallels between human and ant societies. Though there are no ant symphony orchestras, secret police, or schools of philosophy, both ants and men conduct wars, divide into specialized castes of workers, build cities, maintain infant nurseries and cemeteries, take slaves, practice agriculture, and indulge in occasional cannibalism, though ant societies are more energetic, altruistic, and efficient than human ones [The New York Review of Books].
The book’s first and third sections deal with the adventures of an Alabama boy named Raphael Semmes Cody, called Raff. The boy grows up poking around the lush pine savanna of the Nokobee Tract; he’s drawn to its natural wonders, and uses the forest to escape from his parents’ toxic marriage. In this pristine woodland he literally leaves no stone unturned as he discovers the forest’s rich flora and fauna. Raff grows up and heads to Harvard to study law, returning later in life to protect the Nokobee from feckless developers. But fans of Wilson’s science will be most interested in the book’s middle section, where the author inserts a mini-novella describing the trials and tribulations of the ants living in the endangered forest.
“It’s a catastrophe. Relax!”
Those are the words of Michael Beard, the Nobel laureate physicist long past his prime who is the anti-hero of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar, out this week in the United States. McEwan, no stranger to writing scientist characters or scientific themes, dives this time headlong into climate change. McEwan says he was nervous attempting to write fiction about a subject that has the potential to be, well, dull. But Solar is a laugh-out-loud read thanks to its ridiculous protagonist and willingness to make light of the apocalyptic seriousness of the conversation.
At the book’s outset, in the year 2000, Beard isn’t particularly convinced about climate change. He’s coasting on his reputation as a Nobelist, making money giving repetitive lectures and sitting on various boards, when suddenly he finds himself in charge of a shiny new British government research center out to build the next new thing in alternative energy. In the second part of “Solar,” Beard has become a believer in global warming, working on a way to get non-carbon power from artificial photosynthesis—a new application of a never-quite-explained theory that he came up with in his 20s. Unfortunately, he didn’t discover the application himself. He stole it from his dead assistant [Wall Street Journal], the marvelously enthusiastic (or at least enthusiastic until an unfortunate encounter with a coffee table) Tom Aldous.
You may have learned of the line of cells known as the HeLa strain in a biology class, where a teacher explained the “virtually immortal” nature of these rapidly multiplying cells, and how they played a defining role in science. Over the last six decades, the prolific HeLa cells have been used to develop the first polio vaccines, test chemotherapy drugs, and develop techniques for in vitro fertilization. With their amazing capacity to multiply, the cells are an endless bounty to scientists. HeLa has helped build thousands of careers, not to mention more than 60,000 scientific studies, with nearly 10 more being published every day, revealing the secrets of everything from aging and cancer to mosquito mating and the cellular effects of working in sewers [The New York Times].
But for all that research, little was known about the origin of the cells or about the unwitting donor who supplied them–Henrietta Lacks (The “He” in HeLa stands for Henrietta and “La,” for Lacks). Lacks was a 30-year old black tobacco worker who died of cervical cancer nearly 60 years ago. She died in a public ward for “coloreds” at the then-segregated Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore.
In a new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, author Rebecca Skloot explores Henrietta Lacks’s impoverished background and raises troubling ethical questions. She notes that Lacks’s cells are still used to this day, but the family never received a penny and was largely unaware of the fate of the cells. Over the course of 10 years, Skloot worked with Lacks’s daughter Deborah to uncover the real story behind the HeLa cells.
The nose knows when you’ve walked into a library or archive populated by books of a certain age: The distinctive musty smell of the old paper fills the halls and reading rooms. Now, for a study in Analytical Chemistry, a research team has analyzed the chemicals that combine to form the “old book smell,” and says that one day a book’s odor could tell scholars a lot about the tome’s history.
The international research team, led by Matija Strlic from University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage, describes that smell as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness. This unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents,” they wrote in the journal article [BBC News]. The smell is a result of volatile organic compounds that are released as the paper ages.
After watching conservators smell the paper while investigating old books, Strlic applied a “sniff test” based on gas chromotography-mass spectrometry to sort out the chemicals mingling in the odors of 72 older documents. The researchers identified 15 organic compounds that made good markers to track the condition of books [Scientific American]. The system isn’t ready for librarians or conservators yet, but Strlic says he envisions a hand-held model they could use to analyze the age of a book, or what materials constitute its pages and binding, in a noninvasive way. Currently, age-testing a book usually requires snipping off pieces for testing.
The sooner the better, because books aren’t forever. Paper produced until about 1850 was made to last for millenniums. The development of new wood-pulping techniques in the middle of the 19th century and the use of rosin sizing reduced the longevity of paper. The acidity of paper made with these techniques causes them to degrade more quickly than the older papers — or newer ones made with different methods after 1990 [Wired.com].
80beats: The DNA of Medieval Manuscripts May Reveal Their History
80beats: In Controversial Scent Lineups, A Dog’s Nose Picks Out the Perp
80beats: Ant’s Chemical Signal Tells Nest Mates, “I’m Not Dead Yet.”
The Intersection: On Books, in which DISCOVER blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum sings the praises of that old book smell.
Image: flickr / Guldfisken
The Greek poet Homer was first to make written reference to a “sardonic smile,” and in the millennia since the phrase has been used to denote a bitter or cynical grin. Now, researchers in Italy say they’ve discovered a poisonous herb that gave rise to Homer’s coinage: a plant called hemlock water-dropwort that grows wild across the island of Sardinia and was used in the ancient Sardinians’ death rituals. The plant was used in pre-Roman times for the ritual killing of old people who had become a burden to society. “According to ancient historians, elderly people unable to support themselves were intoxicated with the herb and then killed by being dropped from a high rock or by being beaten to death,” the research team wrote [Telegraph]. The plant’s toxins can cause facial muscles to contract, researchers note, leaving an eerie smile frozen on the face of the corpse.
The poet Homer first used the word ‘sardonic’ as an adverb when describing Odysseus’ smile. The Greek hero “smiled sardonically” as he dodged an ox jaw thrown by one of his wife’s former suitors. According to some scholars, Homer coined the word after learning that the Punic people who settled Sardinia gave condemned people the smile-inducing potion [Discovery News].
The online bookseller Amazon is expected to unveil a larger model of its Kindle e-reader at a press conference today, and the company hopes that the device will revolutionize several old-media industries: textbook publishing and the newspaper and magazine business. Photos show that the new reader will be about the size of a sheet of paper and will have a 9.7-inch screen, which will be more conducive to displaying content from textbooks, newspapers, and magazines.
The new product will be unveiled at Pace University, one of six colleges that will use the Kindle to distribute course material to students next fall in a technological test run. Experts say that bringing college textbooks to a light and portable e-reader makes loads of sense. Anyone who’s been to a U.S. college in the past few decades could tell you that textbooks are very highly–some would say obscenely–priced. They’re also bulky, and often difficult to get rid of once purchased: Selling the third edition of an introductory biology textbook on the used-book market is pretty difficult when the fourth edition comes out a year later. Theoretically, this should be the perfect market for an electronic reader like the Kindle…. “I do think the textbook market will be the killer app for e-readers,” said Sarah Epps, a media analyst at Forrester Research [CNET]. However, Epps added that it would probably take several years for the technology to catch on, and for publishers to reach acceptable profit-sharing agreements.
Objections are increasing to Google Book Search, Google’s massive effort to scan millions of books and present their contents online. The company reached an agreement last year with the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers to pursue the project. It is awaiting a judge’s approval…. The settlement is unusual is that it essentially structures the digitized book search market while that market is in its infancy, said Bert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute [Reuters]. But Google is facing new obstacles in winning that judicial approval, as concerns continue to mount over how much power will be concentrated in the company’s hands.
The settlement would establish a revenue-sharing system and would allow Google to present the partial contents of books in the public domain, books that that are still under copyright but are out of print, and current books whose publishers have negotiated agreements with Google. But critics worry that Google is building a new kind of monopoly based on access to information, and that the company could therefore set prices as high as it wanted. In a new legal filing by library groups, critics of the settlement wrote that “the cost of creating such a library and Google’s significant lead-time advantage suggest that no other entity will create a competing digital library for the foreseeable future” [CNET]. The Justice Department’s antitrust division is also reportedly investigating the deal.
When medieval literature scholar Timothy Stinson studies an illuminated manuscript, he doesn’t just examine the text and rich illustrations for clues to the manuscript’s origins. He also wonders what he can learn from the parchment itself, which is made from animal skins. Now, Stinson has demonstrated that the DNA from those old animal skins can be extracted and studied to reveal what kind of animal it came from, which could help in determining manuscripts’ provenance and age. Until recently, scholars relied on visual analysis (such as handwriting samples) to trace the origin of most ancient texts. But Stinson says that more precise genetic analyses are possible because the preferred “paper” of the day was thin parchment made from the skin of local cattle, sheep or goats. “DNA offers much more specific information, but no one’s mapped it yet,” he says [Scientific American].
Stinson is proposing a genetic database of medieval manuscripts. If researchers first record data from monastery paperwork which has a known origin and age, he says, they can then check undated and mysterious manuscripts against that database to try to find matches. “This could help us understand not just things, not just books, not just medieval cows, but people,” said Stinson…. He gave the example of an undated poem he’s currently translating, about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. The poem, said Stinson, reflects anti-Semitic tendencies common in parts of medieval England. “Who was circulating these — what time, and when? Was it country gentlemen? Monks? Where are these being produced?” [Wired News].