Book review – Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity

Ask most biologists about the history of genetics and they will likely mention Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA or the work of the monk Gregor Mendel that showed a simple form of trait inheritance. Professor of History Theodore M. Porter contends that there is another, largely forgotten side to this story. Long before words such as genetics and genes had been coined, the fledgeling discipline of psychiatry was recording details of patients in mental asylums, collecting vast amounts of data on human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is a deep dive into the archives to reveal this little-known history.

Genetics in the Madhouse

Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity” written by Theodore M. Porter, published by Princeton University Press in June 2018 (hardback, 447 pages)



Book review – Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator

Orcas or killer whales have been at the centre of a swirling controversy for decades. Popular attractions in aquaria, their plight there has been highlighted in recent books and documentaries, further strengthening opposition to keeping cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in captivity. However, as Jason M. Colby meticulously documents in this book, there is a cruel irony at play here: this very practice of captivity is what raised our environmental awareness in the first place.


Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator” written by Jason M. Colby, published by Oxford University Press in July 2017 (hardback, 394 pages)


Book review – Microbes from Hell

I recently read about the American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012) and his discovery of a completely new group of single-celled organisms, the Archaea, in Quammen’s book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. These mysterious microbes thrive under extreme environmental conditions, so I was intrigued and keen to find out more. The French microbiologist Patrick Forterre here describes these microbes, the research that led to their discovery, and the questions and answers this has thrown up. Originally published in French in 2008 as Microbes de l’Enfer, The University of Chicago Press has now made this book available in English to a wider audience.

Microbes from Hell

Microbes from Hell” written by Patrick Forterre, published by The University of Chicago Press in October 2016 (hardback, 273 pages)


Book review – The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

Human civilisation is hungry for many resources, and I feel that there is a general awareness that we are taking more than the planet can provide. Deforestation, overfishing, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels – I’d like to think these are all familiar ideas and concepts. But who knew that we have a sand crisis looming in our near future? Journalist Vince Beiser has written a hard-hitting reportage that convinces that, despite its ubiquity, even humble grains of sand are a finite resource.

The World in a Grain

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization” written by Vince Beiser, published by Riverhead Books in August 2018 (hardback, 294 pages)


Book review – Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go

Our planetary neighbour Mars has long fascinated us, and the idea of there being Martian life holds a strong grip on our collective imagination. NASA and others are becoming serious about sending people to Mars. Before we do so, astronomy professor David Weintraub would like to give you this readable history of our fascination with the Red Planet and the research that tries to answer the question: is there life on Mars? (Admit it, you were crooning that David Bowie song there).

Life on Mars

Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go” written by David A. Weintraub, published by Princeton University Press in May 2018 (hardback, 310 pages)


Book review – The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World

Krill is one of those enigmatic invertebrate groups that feeds whole ocean ecosystems but remains itself little known. Even to a biologist such as myself (who has studied fish for crying out loud!), these critters are largely a set of question marks. I mean they are crustaceans, swim in the sea, are numerous and… oh look, a blue whale!

The Curious Life of Krill

The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World” written by Stephen Nicol, published by Island Press in July 2018 (hardback, 194 pages)


Book review – Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (Second Edition)

Aaah, GMOs. Was there ever a topic comparable to genetically modified organisms that riled people on either side of the debate this much? Written by an organic farmer and plant geneticist, Tomorrow’s Table is a marvellous work that walks the middle road, asking: Why should we not combine the best that organic farming and genetic engineering have to offer? Along the way, it exposes the often illogical, contradictory and, frankly, infuriating attitudes and opinions of the anti-GMO movement, politely smothering them with facts, while also teaching the technology cheerleaders a lesson or two. I love this book.

Tomorrow's Table

Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (second edition)” written by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak, published by Oxford University Press in May 2018 (paperback, 352 pages)


Book review – Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome

DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.

Gene Machine

Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome” written by Venki Ramakrishnan, published in Europe by Oneworld Publications in September 2018 (hardback, 272 pages)


Book review – Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:

“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.

And with that, she had me hooked.


Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World” written by Marcia Bjornerud, published by Princeton University Press in September 2018 (hardback, 208 pages)


Book review – The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art

Given that dinosaurs are no longer around, everything you think you know about what they look like comes from illustrations, models, movies, and merchandise. But how much of this is actually accurate, and how much of it is rather geared towards appealing to our sensibilities? Mark Witton is a man with a mission: to elevate the genre of palaeoartistry to one depicting scientifically accurate renditions, based on informed speculation and careful study of fossils and anatomy. Rather than a book that shows you how to draw a dinosaur, The Palaeoartist’s Handbook is a fantastically useful primer for both aficionados and budding artists into what actually can and should go into making good palaeoart.

The Palaeoartist's Handbook

The Palaeoartist’s Handbook: Recreating Prehistoric Animals in Art” written by Mark P. Witton, published by Crowood Press in September 2018 (paperback, 224 pages)