Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Friendly book review: genes and brains

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I am lucky to have met some amazing people over the last decade and a significant number of them are writers of various sorts – some journalists, bloggers, freelance writers and indeed authors.


It definitely was worth it, Dean! Trying to enjoy the ride, Kat x

It seems it’s the time for book-writing so naturally I have picked up some of these labours of love (and occasionally deep resentment, inevitably) and will share my non-spoilery thoughts about a couple of them with you.

Plenty of the amazing writer people I know are also excellent science communicators so if it’s a hobby or career option for you, obviously I’d encourage you to grab copies too.

One of the joys of this type of writing is that it’s fascinating, absorbing, enlightening – science is a global endeavour and we learn new things every day. It’s impossible for anyone to be up to date on everything that’s happening.

People who take the time to turn their expertise to helping more people to have a better idea of what’s happening – what we’ve discovered, what’s been disproved, what’s still to find out; the big questions that remain – it’s a difficult and important thing to do, so I hope you can join me in supporting them and their work!9781472910066

Herding Hemingway’s Cats

Kat Arney is a fellow cancer research PhD graduate who does more things than any normal person could possibly manage in any given time (check out her bands!). Hence the title of her website.

After a long run heading up Cancer Research UK’s Science Communication department, she’s written her first book all about how genes work. Genetics is such a young branch of biology, the structure of DNA only found in the 1950s, and a huge amount has happened since. So, many people – even relatively recent graduates like myself – are unaware of the key developments.

What is a gene?” sounds like a simple question. It’s one I’ve always felt relatively capable of answering, having received a very simple genetics book when I was little from my parents, and eventually completing a Biochemistry & Genetics BSc. It’s heartening to see that Kat has used the same analogies that I have in her own attempts to explain.

However, it’s not simple after all. This was one of the best things about this book, for me: despite being very familiar with the underlying concepts, there are ways of thinking about this question that I hadn’t encountered before. Communicating the uncertainty at the core of scientific progress is a tough thing to do, but – I think – one of the most important, as it’s not very well-known.

Other aspects of the book to enjoy include Kat’s wit – we’ve long enjoyed chilling out in the pub, and I interned with her team for a while after my PhD, but her written word is also gloriously sweary, silly and occasionally smutty. Even around such a complex topic.

She’s travelled all over the world speaking to great scientists in the field, something most of us never get to do. It’s wonderful getting a peak into the lives and thoughts of some of them; what drives them or how they view their own careers and where things are heading.

My original interest in genetics was rekindled by finding out about new puzzles, things I thought had already been settled, discoveries from the last decade that passed me by.

So, if you like genes, knob gags, hangover tales, travelling and the incomprehensible complexity of life on Earth (in any combination), give it a go!y450-293

The Idiot Brain

Speaking of the incomprehensibly complex, the human brain is generally thought to be the best example of that in the universe. Arrogant much, are we? Well, no – that’s where Dean Burnett‘s first foray into authorship comes in.

Funnily, as I was reading it by a pool in Greece recently, a fellow guest asked “Hey, is that Trump’s biography?” – good one! But as I tried to explain what it was about, he recommended something else to me and concluded it’s great how we knew so much now because “epigenetics”, for example. Hmm, not quite…

I wonder if there’s a perception that science is finished – that with technological advancement, constant announcements of near-victories in the media and so on, perhaps this is contributing to people’s distrust of science/medicine and embracing the “alternative views”. There’s a limited understanding of science being a process and, again, the uncertainty that helps drive it forwards.

Dean explains well both how much we have learned and how much is still to find out about this thing that is us (or, for the dualists, that drives us) sitting in our heads, making us breathe and think and talk and write and do ridiculous things like vote to leave the EU.

As Dean also has a talent for comedy, his writing is also delightfully funny (my friend asked me a couple of times what was up as I giggled out loud); there are some particularly amusing moments for Brits and Americans. As I’ve heard him give talks and chatted occasionally, I also found myself reading it in his voice, which added to the amusement (not ‘cos he’s got a funny voice, but…)

He is also a master of analogy. It’s usually found in the comms toolkit and is used very effectively in this tour of neuroscience, keeping everything accessible and understandable despite the huge task at hand – explaining why the brain does the things it does.

The different sections are memorable (especially the part about why our memories suck, ironically) and there are some really stand-out parts (for me) that do some important mythbusting.

Dean gets some great digs in against “pick-up artists” – if you haven’t encountered this particular kind of self-made asshattery, he’s blogged about it before. Then there’s a wonderful section on depression and other mental health issues. It’s compassionate, informative and empathetic, and rightly condemning of people who are dismissive/derogatory about sufferers. I cannot recommend these chapters enough.

Yes, they’re friends, so you might think I’ll be nice about their work by default, but honestly these are great reads and you could do a lot, lot worse than grab a copy or two!




Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

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