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The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  237 ratings  ·  42 reviews
What happens during a heart attack? Can someone really die of fright? What is death, anyway? How does electroshock treatment affect the brain? What is consciousness? The answers to these questions lie in the electrical signals constantly traveling through our bodies, driving our thoughts, our movements, and even the beating of our hearts.

The history of how scientists disco
Hardcover, 340 pages
Published September 24th 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published May 1st 2012)
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THE SPARK OF LIFE: Electricity in the Human Body. (2012). Frances Ashcroft. *****.
The author is a scientist and a professor of physiology at the University of Oxford. This is probably the most interesting and well-written book on this topic that I have ever read. The author has managed to provide the reader with an overview of her topic that doesn’t leave you dazed and confused and, in addition, goes beyond the specifics to provide relative information on allied fields of research. She does man
Since I’m in the middle of my female authors only month, I thought now would be a good time to get round to some of the non-fiction books I have by women, especially in the STEM field. I’d forgotten I had this one, which is a shame: it fits into my general theme of reading about neurology, and builds on a lot of the stuff about ion channels that I learnt in an introductory biology class on Coursera. I understood pretty much all the science without wanting or needing to look anything up, or letti ...more
This book is life-altering and paradigm changing. If you've not been amazed by your own body just yet, first,shame on you, and second, buy this book and keep it as a national treasure!
The overall content of the book is about how electricity is generated in our amazing bodies. All of our thousands of cells contain potassium, and outside of the cell is highly concentrated with sodium. Within all of our cells, we have these amazing things called ion channels that are "innervated" by a multitude
A scientist talking about 'electricity in the human body' ties into energy therapy, design in nature and...... the dots are starting to join up -but I'm only on p58....!
Rating: 4 of 5

Okay, so I think I'll have to read The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body at least three or four more times to fully understand everything Ashcroft covered. It was fascinating to learn the history of electricity and I couldn't get enough of Chapter 9, "The Doors of Perception." Even for non-scientists, like moi, there is much to learn from The Spark of Life despite its scientific terminology and explanations. What I loved most about the book was how much it made (is makin
Chris Demer
This was not a fast read, but quite understandable to the educated layperson. I learned a great deal- from the AC or DC wars of Edison and Tesla, to the ways ion channels, which are proteins, control whether and when certain ions pass into or out of the cells-causing electrical currents throughout the neurons, causing muscles to contract and glands to secrete (or not).
The history of the discovery of electricity was great and the means by which it has been used for good or ill to treat many diff
Brian Clegg
I think most of us are aware that the human body uses both chemical and electrical signalling to control its inner functions, but until I read this book I had certainly never realised that extent to which a rather strange electrical process (strange because it involves the flow not of electrons as in ‘normal’ electricity, but of ions) is handled by ion channels.

After a preface that is a little confusing as she uses terms that aren’t really explained until later, biologist Frances Ashcroft, who s
Ashcroft covers an impressive breadth of the history and science of electricity. The beginning and the end chapters are the most interesting for me as they survey the initial discovery of electricity in bodies (twitchy frogs and electrifying monks and criminals; and the ac, dc wars of Tesla and Edison, etc). The middle (bulk of the book) covers current scientific knowledge with some forays into clinical studies, and a few occasional wanderings through history as well. By necessity this middle pa ...more
A strangely frustrating book, but rewarding none-the-less. The author is at her most adroit when discussing her field of expertise: the ion channels which allow our cells to maintain their positive and negative charges (and the way they impact on everything from nefarious poisons to miraculous cures). She manages to make this academic topic pretty engaging, and to expand it into a broader spread of histories & oddities. What's unfortunate is that, even with some unique research extending the ...more
Ashcroft elegantly explains how life is electricity and electricity is life. She offers some very good guesses on how our life forms began, molecules adrift in a miasma of positive and negative energy. How the nervous system, muscles, respiratory, cardiac and other systems are variants of the "animal electricity." A lot of this science was unknown as recently as the 1970s, so you didn't miss it sleeping through class.

She suggests the great possibility, and peril, of gene therapy and manipulation
David Beleski
A number of extremely dangerous errors occur throughout the book. For example line 9 of page 164 mentions "amyl nitrate (nitroglycerine)" as treatment for Angina. The chemical used is this case would be amyl nitrITE not nitrATE. Secondly neither of these compounds are synonymous with nitroglycerin. If one were to attempt "crushing an ampule of it under his nose to inhale" the result would be a high power explosion.
Page 253 details the use of "potassium chlorate (an anesthetic)". Drinking it wou
Thanks to Goodreads First Reads and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. for an ARC of The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body.

This was a very interesting book and covered a lot more than the title suggests. Frances Ashcroft covered the discovery of electricity, the AC/DC wars between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, various "treatments" that electricity was used for, and more in this easy to read book. Some of the more biological writing in the book covered the ion channels in the cells, an
Scott Wozniak
This book on the electrical aspects of biology was scientifically interesting, but had two aspects that made it only an okay read for me.

First, it used a ton of scientific language. I read a fair bit of science books and kept up for the most part. But I've read enough to appreciate someone using language that is approachable. Sure, some things were explained, but dozens of times terms like action potential and bi-lipid layer and homeostatic were tossed in without definition. Again, I could puzz
Julian Hadlow
A fascinating insight into the role of electricity in particularly the human body. A worthwhile read in Practical Science language. Ashcroft uses no hard to understand concepts, but still manages to lead us into the fascinating electrical world within our own bodies.

Her forte is showing how ion channels regulate our entire bodies. Without them, there would be no life. These pores (ion channels) in all cell membranes, will selectively allow only certain molecules to pass under the control of the
There is a lot of easy to understand information about electricity in general through a brief history of human curiosity and experimentation with it and some amusing anecdotes about myotonic goats. I think I understand a little better how ion channel blocking pharmaceuticals work for people with diabetes and high blood pressure because this book is written by a physiologist who worked with ion channels in cells. I've always been fascinated by the fact that we are really electrical beings powered ...more
My biggest takeaway from this book is: As much as we have learned about electricity and the part it plays in the essence of life—and we have learned a lot, we have barely scratched the surface of understanding this very interesting relationship. Yet it is at the center of understanding life. I would love to see what we learn over the next decades and probably next few centuries. If I were just approaching my adult years, this would be a fascinating area to work in.

Having said that, as a book in
Some fascinating history and great metaphors. At times very technical; there were parts I read a couple times to try to understand them and still fell short. Non-scientists who want to get every concept might do best to read this with a highlighter and take notes.

Even though I'd have to read this a few times to get the most out of it, I already have a much greater understanding of how my mind and body work, which is invaluable in itself. This is worth reading just for Chapter 9, which is all abo
This book was very well written and the author did an extraordinary job at clearly explaining some complicated ideas especially regarding ion channels and the electrical component of neural communication. It would be great for a college level biopsychology student. Later in the book as she started to talk about broader and more applied concepts the themes became disorganized and superficial and I lost interest. I would have much preferred that she spend more time explaining some of these ideas i ...more
Steven Brown
Fascinating mix of history of science stories and biology - at times the latter could be subtitled "how to poison someone and why it works." Very nice illustrations, particularly at the molecular level. At times I wished there were more at the gross anatomy level - but that probably reflects my lack of handy knowledge of human anatomy.

You might find yourself wishing you could throw up your hand now and then to ask Professor Ashcroft to expand on a fascinating idea, instead of moving on to a new
It was an interesting book about how the body uses electricity in all sorts of different ways, the most obvious being the control of the motor functions.

Some of the biology was way over my head, but the other parts were quite straightforward to understand. There were a couple of glaring errors, but these were on the electrical side, and the sub title of the book about it being about the human body is not strictly accurate as she covers all sorts of life, from plants to animals and how they use
Maya Lucas
I absolutely loved this book! It talked about all the experiments that were done to test the hypothesis of using electricity. It gave very good background information about how we first started using electricity. It also told about how we are all made of electricity and are good conductors because of it. I would give this book to lovers of biology and physiology. It has really good material in it. I also loved how the author was able to keep me wanting to read it.
Amanda Mecke
Sep 29, 2012 Amanda Mecke is currently reading it
I read a great interview with the author on NPR and not only is she a fascinating scientist and researcher, her writing sounds particularly compelling. In this book she explains the difference between electricity outside our bodies (based on electrons in atoms) and that inside our bodies (based on ions and cell metabolism). (She was co-discoverer of a protein that affects a certain kind of genetic diabetes.)
Extremely interesting book about how electricity helps the human body (as well as animals and plants) function correctly and what happens when a spanner gets thrown in the works. The book is not overly technical and has a few illustrations that help with explanations.
Sep 25, 2013 David added it
I wouldn't recommend this book unless you are looking for an almost textbook-like read about electricity in the human body. The beginning of the book went over the history of electricity which was interesting, but the rest of the book was more like relearning the information I learned throughout school without much more interesting input from the author.
Peter Mcloughlin
It was pretty good. It was a potpourri of biological uses of electricity. It talked about muscles, nerve agents, Dr. Kevorkian, LSD, Memory, Sense of Self, Neurons, Cell transport through membranes, early neuroscience among other things. It skipped around alot and didn't have as much focus as I would like but it had a little of everything.
Zach Jones
good combination of the background/historical info and the modern science/medicine of electric (and chemical) currents in the body. Interesting presentation of the role of currents in a bunch of major body systems. cool. entertaining throughout.
Interesting information about how electricity works within the human body. Read this after reading that our touch phones know when we touch them because of the electricity in our fingertips. Good information and nicely written.
Informative and entertaining read. I noticed one fallacy reported as fact - that sleep deprivation is fatal. I recall in a Psychoanatomy course that our professor adamantly refuted that sleep deprivation lead to death.
Kim Davis
This book has a lot of great reviews and I usually love this type of book. However, I just couldn't get excited about this one. Skipped many chapters to find interesting bits of info I didn't know or had forgotten.
Brian Bowers
Kind of a tough read, but full of amazing info. It's about the nature of life on earth. And it raises the distinct possibility that life doesn't have to work only this way.
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Frances Ashcroft MA PhD FRS is a British physiologist. She is Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor in the University of Oxford. She is a fellow of Trinity College and, with Kay Davies and Peter Donnelly is a director of the Oxford Centre for Gene Function.

Her research group has an international reputation for work on insulin secretion, type II diabetes and neonatal diabetes. Her work w
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