The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Full title: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. I don’t need any persuading about the fact of evolution, but Dawkins is always worth reading on the subject. And Amazon had it at 50% off, so as much as I dislike hardbacks I thought I’d give it a go.

Since I’ve read so many books on evolution, not least the half dozen by Dawkins, what I’m really looking for in a book like this is interesting new examples I haven’t encountered before, and there are certainly some of those, like the wingless fly that lives in termite mounds; generally, though, a lot of it is fairly familiar: Tiktaalik, the evolution of the whale, the guppy experiment, Lenski’s E. coli, eyeless cave-dwelling animals and so on. There are good reasons why these examples are popular, of course, and if you don’t read as much about evolution as I do, they may well be unfamiliar to you. It’s certainly a different repertoire than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. And Dawkins writes engagingly and clearly, even in the chapter about embryology, a subject I usually find a complete head-fuck. So I certainly enjoyed reading it.

The review in New Scientist complains about his occasional side-swipes at religion. The book doesn’t actually talk about religion as often as that review might suggest, but when it does touch on it, it’s about as unflattering as you would expect. It’s easy to understand why creationism is such a red rag to a biologist: his analogy is of a teacher of Latin and Roman history who is constantly confronted by people who insist that the Roman Empire never happened and that the myth of ‘Rome’ is a conspiracy. His abrasive manner when he talks about religion doesn’t bother me, although I can see there’s an argument that it is bad tactics in the battle for hearts and minds.

At least in this book he confines his comments to creationism rather than religion more generally; and I for one am not going to tell him he should be respectful towards young Earth creationism. Because 40% of the US population (and 22% of the UK) believe the world is less than 10,000 years old, when you are rude about creationists, you are being rude about an awful lot of people, and I’m sure they are largely nice, well-meaning and valuable members of society; but come on! Believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old is like believing that the Earth is flat, or that leprechauns bury pots of gold at the ends of rainbows. Or indeed that if you dilute poison over and over again until it is just water, it magically gains healing powers. These ideas are worthy of mockery.

So, I enjoyed it; I’d rather read Dawkins on evolution than Dawkins on religion any day of the week, mainly because evolution is a much more interesting subject. I’m not sure it’s an instant classic, but it’s well worth reading.

» The photo is © Troy Li and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Culture Nature

The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

The Earth: An Intimate History is big, fat (480 page) book about geology. Richard Fortey writes extremely well and it’s an impressive attempt to make a fairly dense subject exciting.

I have to admit though I nearly didn’t finish it; by about halfway though I’d had about as much as I could take of schist, gneiss, nappes and the endless litany of different places, geological periods and minerals that every new page seemed to require. So I put it down for a few weeks.

But eventually I built up the willpower to finish it off, and I’m glad I did; there’s plenty of interesting stuff in there, like the fact that the rocks of England and Scotland were formed on different sides of the Atlantic — or at least a previous ocean that lay between previous versions of Europe and America. Or the fact that in university laboratories, geologists have built vast machines that can squeeze minute samples of rock to the point where they mimic the temperatures and pressures found hundreds of kilometres below the earth’s surface.

» The Grand Canyon is possibly a rather unoriginal choice of photo to illustrate geology, but wotthehell, it’s relevant and looks spectacular. Couleurs de la Terre / Colours of the Earth is © Olibac and used under a CC by-nc-nd license.


Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin

Your Inner Fish is a book which uses comparisons between human anatomy and the anatomy of other animals, living or extinct, to show how evolution helps explain the way we are and the way our bodies develop. Shubin is the palaeontologist who discovered Tiktaalik, one of the key fossils in understanding the fish/tetrapod transition, so that features somewhat, but he also draws on a wide range of examples from other species. tiktaalik

So for example, he traces the evolution of fin into hand over evolutionary history, but also examines how the growing embryo creates a hand (or a fin) from a blob of undifferentiated cells. He uses the evolutionary relationship between the structure of the human head and the gill arches of a shark to explain why the nerves of the head have such a peculiar relationship, how hiccuping is related to our amphibian ancestry, and so on.

Most of this material is rather technical and many of the examples were somewhat familiar to me, so the book could easily have been either impenetrable or just dull. In fact I found it worked very well; even when I had encountered some of the examples before, having them all put together into one book was very helpful. I really did feel after reading it that I was more in touch with my inner fish (and inner wormy thing, for that matter).

And it’s well written, as well. There was a rather clumsy bit in one the first chapter where he attempts to explain cladistics via a visit to the zoo, which had me worried that the book was going to be aimed at eleven-year-olds, but fortunately it turned out to be a blip. Generally the book seems well-pitched for intelligent adults who are curious about biology.

Daily Links


  • via Carl Zimmer, sciencey mini-zines
    ( tags: science zines )
  • ‘The Earth Observatory is a website run by NASA’s Earth Observing System Project Science Office. Bringing together imagery from many different satellites and astronaut missions, the website publishes fantastic images with highly detailed descriptions, feature articles and more. Gathered here are some standout photographs from the collections in the Earth Observatory over the past several years.’ The Big Picture is usually worth a look, but these are especially fab.
    ( tags: Earth photos )

A good day to collide some hadrons

So the Large Hadron Collider has finally been switched on; very much later than originally scheduled, but then it’s a staggeringly big, complicated, expensive piece of kit, so it was just as well to make sure they got it right first time.

It really is pure geek porn: the sheer size of it, just as a piece of machinery; the amount of energy it’s going to throw around; the mind-boggling degree of precision required to smash protons into each other at nearly the speed of light; the amount of computing power it needs to process the data produced. And of course the fact that all this money and expertise and time is being expended simply to advance our knowledge: it is the purest of pure science. It makes me happy every time I think about it.

With all the publicity surrounding the LHC, I’ve been thinking how sad it is that so many people find science boring or scary or completely alien. Of course you can get through life without ever having felt the joy of science, just as you can get through life without ever having understood why some people place such a high value on poetry, or art, or music. But it seems a bit of a waste.

I guess a lot of people start without much natural sympathy for the subject anyway, and then school finishes the job by putting them off for life. I found science lessons at school pretty deathly myself, and I was interested. And I don’t really know what the answer is.

Part of the problem is perhaps that science is presented in school as a very static entity: there’s no sense of it as a dynamic process, a gradual painstaking effort to build up knowledge, with dead ends and wrong turnings and leaps of genius. I’ve always found science more interesting with a bit of historical context; it humanizes science to learn about Newton and Darwin as people. It’s also easier to appreciate the brilliance of some particular insight if you know what people thought beforehand, and why they realised they were wrong.

For example, Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation are very dry when you learn about them at school as a way of predicting the behaviour of falling objects and billiard balls and pendulums. They gain some resonance when you understand that, for the first time, Newton tied the whole universe together. The significance of the famous apple that Newton saw fall from a tree is not so much that he came up with a way of explaining falling apples: it’s that he realised that the apple falling to the ground and the moon orbiting the Earth are the same thing. The same simple set of equations can be used to explain both.

But the trouble with all this human colour and historical context is that it is window-dressing. It’s like trying to teach science by discussing scientific issues in the news: it may make for a lively discussion, but that isn’t enough unless you manage to teach the science itself. Students need to feel the power of theory; of abstract thinking, of reductionism. And I think that’s quite a difficult thing to teach.

» The pictures, both stolen from CERN, are simulated images of collision events; the first is a proton collision creating a microscopic black hole, the second is a lead ion collision.


Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

Full title: Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life. The bacteria Escherichia coli is best known for occasionally causing food poisoning outbreaks, but most strains of it are harmless and indeed a normal part of our gut flora. It’s also one of the most-studied life forms on earth because, like fruit flies and white mice, they are used as a standard laboratory research subject. So Zimmer has been able to use E. coli as a way of looking at a whole range of related topics: evolution, cell biology, genetic engineering and so forth.

'Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate'

As I would expect from him, he writes clearly and well, and the book is certainly interesting, but I wasn’t as excited by it as I expected. The material was broadly familiar: I wouldn’t claim to know the subject well — I only know the bits and pieces I’ve picked up in other popular science books and New Scientist — but there weren’t that many wow moments when I learnt something surprising and new. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m not too excited by bacteria.

I do tend to find microbiology rather hard going. It’s not that it’s too conceptually difficult, I think, at least at the level it’s being presented here; it just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. I think it’s partially that I can’t visualise the action, and partially that there are all these long names for enzymes and proteins and I can’t keep track of them.

This book is pretty good, but if you haven’t read anything by Zimmer, I’d suggest you read Parasite Rex first, because that’s one of my favourite science books ever.

» The photo, Metallic green E. coli on EMB plate, was posted to Flickr by YW Lim and used under a by-nc-nd licence.