Gene Genie

by Rebecca Priestley / 10 December, 2012
A Danish writer’s personal DNA quest tops the book list for our science columnist.
My Beautiful Genome
My Beautiful Genome


In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, a science journalist who regularly misplaces his keys, can’t remember his girlfriend’s birthday and forgets why he’s just opened the refrigerator door, takes up a challenge to train for and enter the US Memory Championship.

In The Hidden Reality, physicist Brian Greene elegantly explores the science of parallel universes and suggests the universe we live in could just be a holographic projection from the real universe. In The Viral Storm, virologist Nathan Wolfe travels into the central African jungle in search of primate viruses to take back to his San Francisco lab. These are just three of the six books short-listed for this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, an award that celebrates “accessible, interesting and compelling accounts of the world around us or inside us”.

There are things in these books to get scared about. “Microbial threats will grow in the coming years in their ability to plague us, kill people, destroy regional economies and threaten humanity in ways more severe than the worst imaginable volcanoes, hurricanes or earthquakes,” says Wolfe. And there are things to feel good about. In The Better Angels of our Nature, psychologist Stephen Pinker sets out strong evidence for the progressive decline of violence at all levels – familial, tribal and societal. “It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence,” he says.

But this year’s winning book, described by the New York Times as being “illuminating and sexily theoretical”, is a history of information – from talking drums to Morse Code to Wikipedia – by American journalist, and previous Pulitzer Prize finalist, James Gleick. The Information was praised by the judges as “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers, throwing in generous helpings of evidence and examples along the way. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”

My vote, however, goes to Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome, in which Denmark’s top science writer looks to her DNA for an explanation of her familial tendency towards mental illness and alcoholism. Her riveting exploration of behavioural genetics, that “once controversial field that asks the cheeky questions about how tiny differences in individual genes can explain how people think, react and act differently”, is deeply funny and often very personal. In her quest to find out how DNA makes us who we are, Frank investigates her own DNA, interviews people who work with DNA, including James Watson and Spencer Wells, and goes to the first international consumer genetics show. But it’s not just Frank’s sharp humour and personal revelations that I liked.

In many years as a science writer, I have always found biochemistry the most difficult science to come to terms with. In a few cleverly worded pages in the first chapter, Frank – who has a PhD in neurobiology – made the arcane relationship between DNA, RNA, genes and proteins suddenly clear to me for the first time. Bless. As for New Zealand’s best science book, you’ll have to wait until 2013. The Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize is awarded biennially, with books published in 2011 and 2012 eligible for next year’s prize.

WINTON PRIZE SHORT LIST


Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (Allen Lane); My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank (Oneworld); The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate); The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (Allen Lane); The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane); The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe (Allen Lane).
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance of Len Lye
85816 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Arts

Truth and Lye: New perspectives on the brilliance …

by Sally Blundell

New essays on New Zealand-born US artist Len Lye elevate him to the status of Australasia’s most notable 20th-century artist.

Read more
Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infertile couples
86046 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Health

Brain activity may hold the secret to helping infe…

by Nicky Pellegrino

For about a third of infertility cases in New Zealand, there is no obvious reason why seemingly fertile couples struggle to conceive.

Read more
Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by photographer John Rykenberg
85964 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Farewells on the Auckland wharves, captured by pho…

by Frances Walsh

More than one million images from Rykenberg Photography, taken around Auckland, are now in the Auckland Libraries Collection. But who are the people?

Read more
'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke covered in insects
86027 2018-01-18 11:59:55Z Environment

'Termite hell' for Golden Bay man after he woke co…

by Hamish Cardwell

A Golden Bay man spending his first night in his new house says he woke to find his bed, walls and floor covered in hundreds of creepy crawlies.

Read more
Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want to save the oceans
86015 2018-01-18 11:18:49Z Environment

Ten ‘stealth microplastics’ to avoid if you want t…

by Sharon George and Deirdre McKay

There's a growing movement to stop the amount of wasteful plastic that goes into our oceans, but what about the tiny bits we can hardly see?

Read more
It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking water
86001 2018-01-18 09:41:15Z Social issues

It's time to chlorinate New Zealand's drinking wat…

by The Listener

The inconvenience to chlorine refuseniks is tiny compared with the risk of more suffering and tragedy from another Havelock North-style contamination.

Read more
Climate change: New study finds worst case scenario might not be as bad
85994 2018-01-18 08:27:48Z Environment

Climate change: New study finds worst case scenari…

by Charlie Dreaver

Global warming's worst case scenario may not be as bad as previously thought, a new climate change study says.

Read more
The science of sibling rivalries
85949 2018-01-18 00:00:00Z Science

The science of sibling rivalries

by Sally Blundell

Who was the favourite? Who got the most? Sibling relationships set up patterns that last a lifetime.

Read more