Frankenstein's monster

Book Reviews

Matters of life and death, and how to execute daring rescues, are the subject of this month's books.

Allen Lane

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the human body

by Frances Ashcroft, £20, ISBN 978-1-846-14301-4

In 'The Spark of Life' Frances Ashcroft retells one of those anecdotes about science so wonderful that you desperately hope it's true. She tells us that during a viva voce examination at Oxford in the late 19th century, a nervous student was asked if he could explain electricity. He replied that he was sure he once knew what it was, but under the pressure of interrogation he had forgotten. The examiner remarked that this was unfortunate as: 'Only two persons have ever known what electricity is: the Author of Nature and yourself. Now one of the two has forgotten.'

While this is almost certainly apocryphal, it has been included for a serious reason. Today we know a lot about electricity, and yet we forget that this knowledge is a hard-won and comparatively recent acquisition. It may have powered the Industrial Revolution, but we were still largely in the dark. We've known of it since antiquity, and yet the process of revealing its mysteries is on-going. Ashcroft, a fellow of the University of Oxford too, is one of today's pioneers, having made serious breakthroughs in the field of ion channels.

Her latest book takes the position that while we may now be familiar with the idea that machines are powered by electricity, we may not be so well aware that the same is true of ourselves. Ashcroft's is essentially the story of bioelectricity, a term ultimately derived from'the 18th Century Italian physicist Luigi Galvani who discovered 'animal electricity' while dissecting a frog. Details such as this render Ashcroft's text rich in detail, as she swoops from cultural vantage points such as Mary Shelley's famous monster to contemplating a science-fiction future where humans might be fitted with artificial memory aids.

The main focus of 'The Spark of Life' is, as its subtitle suggests, 'Electricity in the Human Body'. As her historical portrait of electricity catches up with the present, Ashcroft presents us with the latest scientific developments and an introduction to the fundamental role of ion channels in our bodies. Impairment of these channels can lead to human and animal diseases. Ever wondered why some goats fall over when startled, or for that matter, why some people can't stand up while eating a banana? Ever wondered what controls our functions while asleep, lose consciousness, listen to Mozart or try to predict where a tennis ball will land? The answer lies in how 'a special kind of protein' - the ion channel - works, and how it gives rise to electrical activity in our nerves and muscles.

It's inevitable that 'The Spark of Life' will be pigeonholed as 'popular science' simply because it is readable and accessible. But this is'a shame, because Frances Ashcroft has offered us an extraordinary fusion of culture and cutting-edge science that has something of the 'watcher of the skies' about it.

Nick Smith


John Murray

The Blind Giant: Being human in a digital world

by Nick Harkaway, £20, ISBN 978-1848546417

Had he been feeling a touch more playful, novelist Nick Harkaway could easily have titled his latest book 'The Tao of the Internet'. For in many ways it echoes the sentiments of the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu. In life change is inevitable, it says, and more is always coming. Accepting it and understanding it is the most effective strategy for continued relevance, success, and ultimately happiness.

Of course actually doing this is easier said than done. Technology and its surrounding social phenomena move at such a pace that everyone from big business to specialist government think tanks is struggling to keep pace. In this treatise, his first work of non-fiction, Harkaway attempts to make sense of the endless torrent of ones and zeroes that are somehow shaping our everyday existence. He casts his net wide, taking in work/life balance, monopolies, piracy, politics, publishing, social media and much more besides, and has plenty to say about it all.

His analysis is thoughtful, well-crafted and easy to digest thanks to the conversational writing style and frequent references to his personal experiences as a writer, consumer and, first and foremost, a human being.

Refreshingly, he never claims to have all the answers and is instead content to pose intelligent questions and encourage the reader to get involved in the discussion.

Faced with such a compelling invitation, surely all but the most'technophobic will take up his challenge. After all, the journey of one thousand miles now often starts with a single click.

Jason Goodyer



Thunderbirds Agents' Technical Manual 

by Sam Denham, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-85733-117-5

The iconic and enduring 'Thunderbirds' began life as a TV series in 1965, but was set in'2065. Although criticised for its jerky puppetry and lampooned by successive generations of comedians, its futuristic technology found a place in the heart of many an engineer. For some, the creative models even sparked an interest in engineering as a career. Those individuals will buy this book for their kids (or grandkids) but they'll want to read it first!

The manual's 133 colourful pages are packed with diagrams and photos of what made 'Thunderbirds' worth watching: the fantastic machines designed, by engineer 'Brains', to rescue those in distress wherever they were on Earth, or in space.

But how does the technology stand up 47 years later? Does Gerry Anderson's vision of 2065'look feasible, or is it still closer to fantasy? Surprisingly, much of the technology withstands critical analysis.

With my satellite engineer's hat on, I'm pleased that monitoring and communications from space played a large part in the operation of International Rescue. Understandably, only three years after Telstar reached orbit, Thunderbird 5 was a manned space station, but'apart from the anti-gravity it'all looks pretty feasible for 2065. What is more difficult to believe is that we'll have the almost instantaneous access to space provided by TB3 (the red rocket that launched through the summer house).

We already have submersibles more capable than TB4 (the yellow mini-sub), but the ubiquity of portable "atomic power" predicted by many in the 1960s will still be fiction in 2065.

Hypersonic aircraft were crucial to the International Rescue concept, but TB1's Mach 20 remains a distant target. The best chance for a Mach 5 hypersonic transport is the UK's Skylon concept currently under development' and it looks as close to a real Thunderbird as we're likely to see in the timescale.

Mark Williamson


Palgrave Macmillan

The Million Death Quake

by Roger Musson, £16.99, ISBN 978-0-230-11941-3

We've been lucky so far because there's not been a so-called 'megadeath' earthquake. But it will happen one day, says Roger Musson in his new book 'The Million Death Quake'.

We know this because large-scale earthquakes occur at a frequency of one per month. This doesn't vary, but our perception does. When an earthquake happens in Antarctica a few penguins get shaken about and no one apart from the geology community cares.

But when an earthquake strikes a vulnerable, over-crowded, poorly maintained city - as happened in Haiti's Port-au-Prince in January 2010 - the results are apocalyptic and it's big news.

As Musson says, the death toll will be between 10 and 15 per cent of the population affected. In Haiti there were three million and so 220,000 people died. We can predict this because experts such as Musson - who is chief spokesman for the British Geological Survey - have an equation for assessing earthquake risk based on hazard, exposure and vulnerability. All that's required for a tragedy of stupendous proportions is for all three to be at maximum at the same time. Could be Iran next. Could be Turkey...

Musson's book develops this simple theme to address two simple questions: what are earthquakes, and what can be done about them? The result is an excellent read presenting the levelheaded detachment of an academic expert in the entertaining guise of a popular science book. He expresses in clear terms the facts and issues behind what is - let's admit this - a viscerally fascinating subject.

You can't stop earthquakes happening, says Musson. But you can elect governments that invest in departments of seismology instead of blowing their budgets on nuclear weapons.

And yet for all this top level thinking, what we really need is better buildings. And it's a sobering thought that while the international community of seismologists such as Musson makes valiant inroads into predicting earthquakes and recommending precautions, in the end it's what the local builder does to turn a quick profit that might be what counts.

Nick Smith

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