Atul Gawande is a total boss, I had no idea it was possible for physicians to be such eloquent writers.
Although at times the book seems a little dispe...moreAtul Gawande is a total boss, I had no idea it was possible for physicians to be such eloquent writers.
Although at times the book seems a little dispersed and lacking a unifying theme, it holds up as a collection of super compelling case-studies of medicine, each offering sharp insight into the culture of medicine as well as structural issues with the practice of medicine in the US.
It's clear from this book that George Church is an extremely intelligent individual, it is also clear that he has some pretty out-there beliefs when i...moreIt's clear from this book that George Church is an extremely intelligent individual, it is also clear that he has some pretty out-there beliefs when it comes to bioethics and human destiny.
The book provides an exciting peak into the (maybe no longer) forefront of synthetic biology. Church describes recent research in his and other labs that have pushed forward technology in genetic sequencing, genetic synthesis, and engineering. While he gives an overview of what some of the technology do (such as the exciting MAGE technology that his lab developed to rapidly generate high levels of genetic variation in microbial populations) it is clear that he wanted to keep the book accessible to the laymen, and so often we don't actually find out how they work.
The highlight of the book is probably the visions Church offers as potential future applications of synthetic biology. He describes the possibility of engineering entire chiral mirror organisms and possibly mirror humans out of constituent mirror molecules who will be immune to existing viruses and bacterial pathogens. He also talks about more attainable applications of generating sustainable biofuels or data storage in DNA.
Church's thoughts on bioethics are for the most part thoughtful. There is a section where he describes what he believes are the 6 "industrial" revolutions of human history with the 7th to be the synthetic biology revolution. He takes care to describe the unintended consequences of each previous revolution, but also emphasizes that for each one, the benefits almost indisputably outweigh the costs. In the last chapters however, he seems to get a little careless ethically when discussing the possibility of synthetically altered "transhumans." He dismisses the ethically implications largely by comparing the introduction of transhumans as comparable to the natural diversity that already exists within the human population.
In the last chapter, Church spells out his sort-of vision of human future, which as I understand it, essentially consists of human civilization colonizing extraterrestial bodies (getting off this planet). This is confusingly disjointed from the rest of the (biology-themed) book, and echos the occasional rant-i-ness of some of the passages throughout.
Overall, there are very interesting ideas and well worth a read, but don't count on it to be a well-crystallized manifesto for the synthetic biology movement.(less)
Wonderfully written story of cancer. The author manages to make the multi-millenia long history of cancer read like a mystery novel. Throughout the bo...moreWonderfully written story of cancer. The author manages to make the multi-millenia long history of cancer read like a mystery novel. Throughout the book we learn how our ancestors in Egypt and Europe thought of cancer, but the story picks up around the start of the twentieth century. In the early 20th century, what used to be an untreatable disease began to be attacked by Halsted and his followers by radical masectomies in the case of breast cancers. Most of the book is devoted to the rest of the century in which chemotherapy is established as one of the main weapons against cancer, starting with anti-folates by the work of Farber. The author also ties in the political story of cancer; how Farber, Mary Lasker, the Jimmy Fund and others brought about the national attention and the subsequent national investment into cancer research. We also learn of very recently-developed targeted small molecule drugs which take advantage of the new mechanistic understanding of cancers that was the fruit of the massive research efforts. Throughout the book the author, himself an oncologist, never fails to tie in the human side of this story, giving us insight into the lives of patients and giving the disease a human element that I have often ignored as a biologist.(less)
For the most part accessible to layman (to the physical sciences) as the letters mostly deal with politics, philosophy, and the personal lives of Born...moreFor the most part accessible to layman (to the physical sciences) as the letters mostly deal with politics, philosophy, and the personal lives of Born and Einstein. Towards the end some letters delve more into the physics where the debate over quantum mechanics became more contentions between the two scientists, I skipped these parts as they were Greek to me. It's fun to read about the lives and thoughts of these intellectual giants, they come out as very sagely and thoughtful individuals who are very much engaged in the world around them, much unlike the image of isolated scholars.
The lead-up to the Second World War reveals Born to be a realist and Einstein to be more of an optimist. Interestingly, this seems to flip after the war as Born becomes more amenable to forgiveness of Germany and moves back there, but Einstein becomes hardened in his opinion against his fatherland. I also found it remarkable that they seemed to maintain such an intimate friendship over the decades often with intervening years of no interaction and meeting outside of their written correspondence.(less)
An interesting collection of scientific anecdotes on the modern field of human genetics. The author structures the book by theming each chapter after...moreAn interesting collection of scientific anecdotes on the modern field of human genetics. The author structures the book by theming each chapter after a human chromosome in order of descending size. Don't let this fool you however, there is nowhere near the degree of exhaustiveness in content that could let this book claim to be any kind of survey on the human genome as a whole. Instead the author links each chapter to its nominal chromosomal namesake with sometimes very tangential connections. In spite of the chapter naming gimmick, the book does hold up as a testament to how powerful advances in human genetics have been in its effects on modern society.
Towards the end of the book however, the author gets a bit erratic. There was a one line borderline non-sequitor potshot at global warming (Ridley seems to be a sceptic), and the last chapter devoted to free will veers entirely off the scientific purvey and becomes an amateur philosophical rant which I doubt the author is qualified to preach on.(less)