High-quality science writing: an illuminating picture of investigators at work and a lucid explication of their findings.

CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT I FORGOT

THE GOOD NEWS FROM THE FRONT LINES OF MEMORY RESEARCH

Engrossing review of the latest advances in the science of memory and brain disease.

During the 1990s, Alzheimer’s replaced AIDS as an American mass phobia, writes veteran science journalist Halpern (The Book of Hard Things, 2003, etc.). Polls place Alzheimer’s second after cancer as the nation’s most feared disease, and it’s first among those older than 55. But, like thinning hair and wrinkles, memory problems occur during normal aging, she informs us. This is cold comfort to anyone who loses her keys or forgets to pay the phone bill, lapses that stimulated the middle-aged author to “get her head examined” and quiz the scientists doing the examining. Halpern intermixes her own experiences with interviews. Her subjects, most of them university faculty, do a good job explaining how we remember, what can go wrong and what they are doing about it. Heredity plays a role, but despite headlines regularly announcing the discovery of the Alzheimer’s gene, it’s unlikely that a single genetic trigger exists; instead, scientists have found plenty of genes that increase the risk. Detecting early memory loss has become a minor industry that often involves high-tech scans and MRIs, even though paper-and-pen tests work as well. (Halpern did both.) The author investigates research to boost memory and turns up one method that works: regular physical exercise. Folk wisdom to the contrary, doing crossword puzzles or math problems doesn’t help. Many drugs increase memory in animals; given to humans, their success rate remains steady at zero. There is as yet no “cure,” but Halpern stresses that breakthroughs occur much faster after scientists understand a disease, and Alzheimer’s is no longer the baffling puzzle it once was. Researchers with new ideas and high-tech equipment are turning up specific anatomical, molecular and genetic abnormalities that govern memory and its loss.

High-quality science writing: an illuminating picture of investigators at work and a lucid explication of their findings.

Pub Date: May 6, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-307-40674-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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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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