A valuable glimpse of science at the edge.

REGENESIS

HOW SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY WILL REINVENT NATURE AND OURSELVES

A heady overview of the emerging discipline of synthetic biology and the wonders it can produce, from new drugs and vaccines to biofuels and resurrected wooly mammoths.

In this authoritative, sometimes awe-inspiring book, geneticist Church (Genetics/Harvard Medical School) and veteran science writer Regis (What Is Life?: Investigating the Nature of Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology, 2008, etc.) team up to explore how scientists are now altering the nature of living organisms by modifying their genomes, or genetic makeup. Organisms whose genes have been selectively altered can be made to do things they wouldn’t do in their original state. Already, this has resulted in making plastic out of corn and carpet fibers from naturally occurring sugars. But carried out on a larger scale, such altering of genetic programming can be made to produce “practically any imaginable artifact.” Genomic technologies can improve human and animal health, extend our life span, increase our intelligence, enhance our memory and allow us to raise the dead. Recounting the evolution of life forms from the Hadean geologic era (3.8 billion years ago) through the present, the authors describe the raw material with which geneticists are working to create new organisms. While sometimes technical, their descriptions of the science are sufficiently lucid for general readers. In the future, they write, we will have novel methods of treating and preventing diseases. We will also be able to bring back extinct species and their habitats to increase genetic diversity and may even explore cloning as a possible route to immortality. Much of the book might be dismissed as science fiction were it not for the fact that Church helped develop direct genomic sequencing and heads the Personal Genome Project, which is sequencing the genomes of many volunteers. With biotech hobbyists now at work in garages, the authors urge the establishment of safety measures to keep people safe and engineered organisms under control.

A valuable glimpse of science at the edge.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-465-02175-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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