Bloom by Ruth Kassinger

Bloom frontThe first things I think of when I hear the word “algae” are the microscopic green cells that were the ancestors of land plants. Reading Bloom by Ruth Kassinger was a powerful reminder that algae are so much more than this. The term “algae” actually describes a diverse collection of lifeforms ranging from single-celled diatoms to kelp and other seaweeds*. In the book, the author explores the origins of algae, their modern uses in food and other products, and the emerging algae-based technologies that may help us save the planet in future.

Kassinger strikes a good balance between scientific detail and storytelling so that the text is approachable and not too technical. I especially enjoyed how the text mixes descriptive passages with accounts of the author’s meetings with algae growers, scientists and entrepreneurs. The book is perhaps a bit long winded in places but I don’t think this detracts from the author’s message. I am looking forward to seeing how the technologies and products highlighted in the book develop in the future.

Bloom by Ruth Kassinger
Elliott & Thompson, ISBN: 9781783964413, hardback Jul 2019

(Published in the US under the title Slime by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in June 2019)

*It is worth noting that there is no generally accepted definition of algae. Traditionally a group of bacteria known as cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) were also considered to be algae, but today many scientists reserve the term “algae” for the non-bacterial species. In Bloom, Kassinger uses the older definition and there is a section on the rise of cyanobacteria.

Book review – The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon by Mark A Montgomery

TQR BOOK COVERI spend my working life helping to repackage scientific findings into formats that allow them to reach new audiences, namely plain-language summaries and podcasts. So, when I was introduced to a SciFi novella for children that prominently features quantum physics, I was intrigued.

Quantum physics (also known as quantum mechanics) is a theory that describes nature at very small scales, at the level of atoms and the ‘subatomic’ particles they consist of. One such subatomic particle known as a photon carries light and other electromagnetic energy.

In The Quantum Realm: Philly the Photon, we meet a boy called Sebastian. After being scared by a thunderstorm, Sebastian’s father encourages Sebastian to ask questions about the nature of light. That night Sebastian has a vivid dream in which he enters the Quantum Realm, leading to an adventure in search of Grunk the Great Graviton (AKA  gravitational force). Along the way, Sebastian confronts some of his fears and learns more about quantum physics.

I have mixed feelings about this story. Some parts of it were rather entertaining and I liked how Mark A Montgomery introduces various concepts in quantum physics in the form of sentient beings that Sebastian can talk to. The characteristics of these characters has clearly been carefully thought through to reflect the nature of the particles they represent, for example, Philly the Photon is very excitable while Grunk lurks deeper within the Quantum Realm, reflecting how the gravitational force is present in atoms but not as important as the other forces at play. However, I wasn’t totally convinced by Sebastian’s character because in much of the dialogue he comes across as being much older than the young boy we meet at the beginning of the story.

I also found it quite hard to keep up with all the new information (and characters) that were introduced along the way. Admittedly, this could be partly because I’m a sleep-deprived new parent, but it does worry me because, although I am not an expert in particle physics, I am not a complete stranger to it. The sheer amount of information packed into the story’s 94 pages may be off-putting to school students who aren’t already pretty interested in physics.

Overall, I think this book is a fun story that provides a different way to learn about the basics of quantum physics and the scientific method. I think it would be of interest to educators who are looking for an unusual way to introduce quantum physics to their students, perhaps in extracurricular science clubs. Montgomery promises to return to the Quantum Realm so it will be interesting to see where the story goes next.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from a book publicity company. The views are my own.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

51miGrYIk-LIn Lab Girl, scientist Hope Jahren has cleverly weaves a memoir of her own life with passages about the lives of plants, her scientific passion. From her childhood in a small town in Minnesota to her current position as a Professor at the University of Hawai’i, she gives a candid account that includes some of the adventures, funny incidents, obstacles, and shifts in her scientific thinking that happened along the way. The book is a fascinating window into the life of a gifted, passionate, yet (reassuringly) human scientist. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy.

If you aren’t convinced by my mini-review, then I suggest you check out this longer review from the NY times.

Book review: The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham

Image by the author.

Image by S. Shailes.

In The Ash Tree, Oliver Rackham writes about the rich history and ecology of the European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior). One of the commonest trees in the UK, ash provides a home to many other species of wildlife and has long been used by humans for fuel, building, and for making wheel rims, ploughs and tools.

Amazingly, Rackham wrote the first draft of this book during a short hospital stay in Texas, drawing on his extensive knowledge of trees and woodlands without any notes to hand (the facts were double-checked later). Written in response to increased interest in ash when ash dieback disease hit the headlines in the UK, Rackham discusses this disease and other threats to ash including deer grazing and the emerald ash borer beetle. Drawing on other examples of tree diseases, Rackham argues that our current practice of transporting trees and wood products around the world is the biggest single threat to all our trees because it exposes them to new pests and diseases they have little or no resistance to.

I really enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in trees, woodlands or plant pathology.

The Ash Tree was published by Little Toller Books in 2014 Find out more:

I’ve recently written about the potential threat to ash trees from the emerald ash borer beetle, which is currently causing devastation to North American ash trees and is now marching into Europe from Russia. Read more here.

I’ve also written about how Ash Dieback disease is affecting an ancient woodland in my local area.

Seeds up close and personal

seed of purple owl’s foot clover (Castilleja exserta subsp. latifolia) Image credit: see below

Seed of the purple owl’s foot clover with its honeycomb seadcoat shown in pink (Castilleja exserta subsp. latifolia) Image credit: Stuppy, Kesseler and Harley.

Seeds are the plant equivalent of an armoured vehicle. They carry the offspring of plants out into the dangerous world and protect them until the time is right for them to grow into new plants. There is huge variety in the size and shapes of seeds, ranging from tiny orchid seeds weighing only 1-10 μg to the enormous seeds of the Seychelles nut that weigh 20 kg.

The amazing variety in seeds is explored in the book Wonders of the Plant Kingdom: a Microcosm Revealed. The book is the result of a collaboration between two botanists—Wolfgang Stuppy and Madeline Harley—and the artist Rob Kesseler. Most of the images in the book have been taken using an electron microscope, which provides a higher level of magnification than traditional light microscopy. These images were originally in black-and-white, but Kesseler has skillfully added colour to help bring them to life. Continue reading

Book Review: The End of Plagues – John Rhodes

I originally posted this review in the summer on the Book Reviews page but I am reposting it now as I think it–or one of the other books I have read recently–would make a good Christmas present.

end-plagues-global-battle-against-infectious-disease-john-rhodes-hardcover-cover-artIn The End of Plagues, John Rhodes guides the reader through the history of fighting infectious diseases. Much of the book focusses on story of Edward Jenner who developed the first vaccine to immunise people against smallpox in 1796. The global fight against smallpox to its eradication in the 1970’s is a fascinating tale played out over several hundred years with many impressive feats. John Rhodes telling of the story introduces the reader to the people involved and provides biological explanations along the way. The book also covers the successes, difficulties and controversies in producing vaccines for other infectious diseases including polio, tuberculosis, whooping cough and flu.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of medicine. For a more in depth review follow this link.

Book review: The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M. Davis

compatbility geneIn The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M. Davis takes us through some of the major discoveries that have helped us to understand how our immune system can target invaders while leaving our own cells alone. The way the immune system identifies “self” and “non-self” has important implications for fighting disease, transplant success and other aspects of life including brain function and pregnancy. Davis focusses on the MHC genes–which code for proteins that sit on the surface of our cells and interact with white blood cells–and features the personal stories of some of the scientists who have studied them.

For me, this book was a reminder of some of the stuff I learnt about the immune system as an undergraduate student, but it also took me into new territory, including our emerging understanding of the role of the MHC genes in brain function and pregnancy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human biology.

For an in-depth review please follow this link.

Book review: Cells to Civilizations by Enrico Coen

cells to civilisationsIn Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that Shape Life, Coen presents evolution, development, learning and culture as transformational processes that share seven fundamental principles. To start with it felt strange to read about familiar concepts in terms of Coen’s seven principles, but I liked how it made me think about the processes in a different way. I enjoyed Coen’s explanations of his processes and the diagrams were clear and very useful. However, while it was clear why it can be useful to think about evolution, development and learning using a set of shared principles, I wasn’t quite so convinced of the relevance of thinking about cultural transformations in the same terms as the biological processes. With famous works of art featuring in many of Coen’s explanations throughout the book, the book is an unusual, but quite interesting mix of science, philosophy and art.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in evolution, development and learning. To get the most out of the diagrams in the book I would suggest reading a print copy as I found referring to diagrams on my kindle a bit cumbersome. For a more in depth review follow this link.

Book review: The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

Image by Richard Cooper (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Image by Richard Cooper (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets is a light-hearted look at the mathematics hidden in the popular animated TV shows The Simpsons and Futurama. The author Simon Singh — a big fan, and best selling author of books including Fermat’s Last Theorem  — highlights some of the many mathematical story lines and jokes that appear in the shows, taking care to explain the concepts for a general audience. The surprisingly large volume of mathematics in both shows is due to the mathematical backgrounds of many of the writers involved, many of whom worked in academia before joining the shows. For me, the book was a fun reminder of mathematics I had previously learnt and an introduction to other concepts I had not come across before. I really enjoyed reading this book and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys watching the shows. For an in depth review follow this link.

Check out reviews for other books I have read recently on my book reviews page.