BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Epigenetics by Cath Ennis

Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Cath Ennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I’m old enough to remember when the human gene sequence was first being decoded, and there was a widespread belief that it was going to end genetic diseases in one fell swoop. It didn’t do that, and – in fact – seemed to result in whole new levels of confusion. It’s fascinating to me that now Epigenetics, a subject that grew out of that confusion, is also being seen as the ticket to ending disease. Epigenetics investigates what traits are expressed and why, given that a specific gene sequence has a vast array of potential for various traits to be (or not to be) expressed.

For those familiar with this series (the “A Graphic Guide” series,) this book is more difficult to digest than most titles, certainly than any of the several others that I’ve read. To be fair, the subject matter is more technical than most, leading to it being more jargon- and acronym-intensive. In addition, the subject isn’t cut up into as small of pieces as most of the books. This one has far fewer and longer chapters than the others that I’ve read.

That said, while it reads technically for the general reader, there are a few concepts (methylation, demethylation, and histone modification) that are frequently revisited throughout the book, and so one can get a basic grasp of those concepts. The book also explores some issues that are more readily understood by the lay reader, such as: nature v. nurture in gene expression, the role of twin studies, and how pseudo-scientific individuals and organizations have made fraudulent claims involving Epigenetics.

If you want to learn about the fundamentals of Epigenetics, you may want to look into this book — but keep in mind that it’s not a smooth read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Information by James Gleick

The Information: A History, a Theory, a FloodThe Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Information is one of those topics that remains obscure not because it’s rare or hidden, but because it’s everywhere and the term is used for so many purposes it’s not thought of cohesively. It might seem like a book on this topic would be hopelessly boring by virtue of the fundamental meta-ness of the material. Instead, Gleick had a vast sea of topics and stories involving intense stakes for humanity from which to choose, e.g.: how did we learn to communicate and advance said capability until it was arguably the most important feature of our species, by what instructions are people “assembled,” might the most fundamental layer of reality be informational, and – in recent decades — will our species drown in flood of cheap information?

Given the vast sprawl of the subject matter, organization becomes a crucial question. In a sense the book is chronological, presenting humanity’s experience with information in more or less the order we came to think about the subject. I think this was a wise move as it starts from what most people think of when they think of information – i.e. language and its communication. That makes it easier to wrap one’s head around what comes later, and to see the conceptual commonalities. This approach might seem self-evident, but an argument could be made for starting with information as the word is used in Physics (as addressed in Ch. 7 – 9,) an argument that that approach is more fundamental and generically applicable, and while it might be both of those things, it wouldn’t be as easily intuitively grasped.

I found this book to be fascinating and easily followed — even though it covers some conceptually challenging topics, it does so in an approachable manner. It is over a decade old, but holds up well – though I think there is much more to say these days about the detrimental effects of information overload, a topic discussed at the end of the book. I recommend it for nonfiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Faster, Higher, Stronger by Mark McClusky

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from ThemFaster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them by Mark McClusky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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McClusky’s book tells us how advances in sports science and technology are producing a new class of elite athlete. More usefully, it discusses which practices of high-level athletes can reasonably be emulated by amateurs. One may think that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. In this case, not so much. If shaving a hundredth of a second off your time isn’t going to affect your life’s course, there are many activities of elite athletes that simply aren’t worth the cost (in whatever terms.) For example, the loss of friendships due to rampant flatulence resulting from consuming large quantities of baking soda isn’t worth it if you just want a little bit stronger Sunday cycling ride. (Baking soda [sodium bicarbonate] counteracts blood and muscle acidification during exercise and makes it possible to keep moving strongly when fatigued would normally degrade performance. Incidentally, this practice has been shown to be effective only for events that last between one and seven minutes.) On the other hand, some of the lessons of sports science are relatively low-cost and high benefit, and might be just what one is looking for to improve one’s performance. (e.g. Replacing a pre-workout stretching routine with one of rolling out the muscles.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger consists of twelve chapters, each addressing a different aspect of the application of science and technology to sport, including: training methods, genetics, nutrition, recruitment, practice, performance enhancing substances (legal and illegal), elevation training, and the limits of performance.

One question that has always been of great interest is how much of a top athlete comes from his or her genes? In other words, can anyone can do it–given a willingness to work like a maniac of course. As with many other questions about heredity, it was once thought that there would be a precise answer to this question in the wake of the decoding of the human genome. However, the success of the human genome project showed only that the situation was vastly more complex than we’d imagined. It turns out that having certain genes isn’t the end of the story because there are many factors that influence which genes are expressed. Attempts have been made to put numbers to the influence of genetics. For example, one scientist is quoted as claiming that 50% of oxygen processing capability (i.e. VO2 max) is heritable. This translates to the fact that, while the average Joe has a reasonable chance of engaging in athletics at some level, only a 0.1 to 0.3 % can summit the pinnacle of elite level athletics.

In many ways, science has encouraged coaches, trainers, and recruiters to think outside the box—and to look beyond the traditionally engrained approaches. One fascinating story was that of how the British national rowing team held tryouts based only on height, with experience with the sport being not required. They ended up with a champion rower who’d first entered a boat only four years before. This is part of the evidence that controverts the once popular 10,000 hour rule that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell–though Anders Ericsson is more properly considered the father of the idea. It turns out that 10,000 hours of practice aren’t required for most activities if one goes about it right.

McClusky spends a considerable amount of space on the questions of what athletes should and shouldn’t consume. In emulating elite athletes many amateurs are working at cross purposes. This is readily seen with the issue of sports drinks. If you’re guzzling down a Gatorade or snacking on Cliff Bars after your run, you may only be ensuring that you continue to gain weight despite working out. On the other hand, you may decide that chocolate milk or beet juice are good choices for you.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the heights of human performance.

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BOOK REVIEW: Becoming Batman by E. Paul Zehr

Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a SuperheroBecoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[Note: This book is about sport and exercise science, particularly as they pertain to the martial arts. If you’re a martial artist or are interested in fitness and movement arts at the extremes of human capacity, you’re in the right place. If you’re interested in the comics and an overview of topics including how many billions Bruce Wayne needs and what technologies Batman must master, those aren’t questions addressed in this book. Such readers may find the book delving into depths they aren’t interested in on biological science. There are articles on the web that deal with topics like the “Cost of being Batman.”]

Next summer an eagerly awaited movie entitled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters. Who knows how much screen time will involve the fight between the titular characters, but the same battle has played out a number of times in the comics, and its appeal is clear. What are the limits of human capability given training, technology, and sufficient smarts? Can a man really defeat an alien that’s faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? A popular fanboy mantra is, “I like Batman, because I could be Batman. Batman has no superpowers.” So, yes, if you were a billionaire, genius, with the physique of a Greek god, and knew 127 martial arts, you too could be Batman. Or could you? That question is at the heart of Zehr’s book.

Becoming Batman is arranged into sixteen chapters divided among five parts. It begins logically with the question of whether Bruce Wayne needs to begin at any particular point to achieve success in transforming himself into Batman? (At the extreme, one probably can’t imagine Bruce Wayne becoming Batman if he was born with one leg a foot longer than the other and with a Quasimodo hump, but given a Bruce who is starting out “average,” what are his limitations.) In other words, how much does genetics come into play. In the first part, Zehr introduces a character, Bob Wayne, who doesn’t appear in the comics. Bob is Bruce’s twin, and is used throughout the book for comparison purposes, i.e. to convey what Bruce Wayne would look like if he didn’t train fanatically to be Batman. The question of how much of Batman is innate and how much is painstaking built by exercise and training is critical to determining how many of those fanboys really could be Batman.

There a series of chapters explaining the mechanism by which stressors result in a stronger, faster, more powerful, and more resilient Batman. The idea is that Mother Nature doesn’t over-engineer. The only way one gets stronger muscles is by overloading them, which triggers a process of rebuilding them bigger and better than before. Wolff’s Law defines the same concept for bones, i.e. bone density increases in response to increased loading. (Incidentally, the same is true of the mind. A more agile mind is achieved only by working it, and zoning out in front of the television results in a dumbening.)

The next section shifts from generic exercise science to questions of Batman’s martial arts training. What kind of martial arts (or arts) would Batman practice? There is an often quoted statement in the comics to the effect that Batman had mastered 127 martial arts. (This is ridiculous, but it does spur the intriguing question of how many systems does Batman need to learn to have a well-rounded skill-base without being a dabbler? Many will say one art—the right one–is enough, others will say that–given the varied cast of villains he must defeat–Batman needs a broader skill-set than any existing art provides.) More to the point, how many hours does one need to practice a technique to ingrain the movements into one (e.g. neurologically it takes repetition to optimize efficiency.) This is among the questions discussed in this book.

The fourth section deals with the ravages of being Batman, and how much any human could be expected to endure. In this section, one will learn about the cumulative toll of concussions, the likelihood of Batman avoiding broken bones and other injuries that would necessarily sideline his crime fighting, and the effect that working the night shift would have. (The latter might seem trivial in comparison to the former two topics, but—in fact—it’s not. It’s well established that night workers have higher incidence of some cancers and other ailments. Furthermore, as Bruce Wayne has to keep appearances up, it means not only fighting circadian rhythm issues, but also frequent sleep deprivation—the hazards of which are even clearer and occur in short order.)

There are a number of interesting topic that aren’t don’t pertain to the core question per se, but which are interesting for fans of the Batman canon and the character’s mythos. Famously, Batman doesn’t use guns or lethal force. This raises the question of how realistic it is to regularly fight hardened knaves and miscreants without killing them. One can only knock out so many of Gotham’s baddies before one doesn’t get up.

There’s a chapter about what a fight between Batman and Batgirl would be like. While strength would definitely be to Batman’s advantage, there are advantages that an equally skilled female fighter might bring to the fight? How would Batgirl (or Catwoman) need to fight to put those advantages to use? Finally, for those of us who are no longer spring chicks, there are chapters about how Batman could expect to age, and how long he could keep performing at a level at which he could defeat his enemies.

I enjoyed this book and found it both educational and interesting. It should be clear that Batman is just a teaching tool used to explore the limitations of the human body and its ability to endure a life of fighting. That said, references to the Batman comic books and movies makes for a readable text. Perhaps what I like most about this book is that most of the books that address these subjects are textbooks that are sold on the textbook pricing model (i.e. we have a limited but captive audience so let’s make them pay top dollar.) This is one of the few books that takes on these topics at the readability and pricing model of a popular science book.

I recommend it for those interested in the science of performance, martial arts, and injury.

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