Science roundup - The Telomere Effect and Science: A History in 100 Experiments

by Veronika Meduna / 08 March, 2017

Two titles offer advice to live a long life by and where to look for Schrödinger’s cat. 

The book The Telomere Effect (Hachette NZ, $37.99) is an unusual hybrid. Half popular-science book, half self-help wellness book, it aims to guide readers towards lifestyle choices that could keep us all younger for longer. The self-help approach could be irritating if the advice wasn’t so well supported by evidence and the authors weren’t among the best-qualified people to dispense such life instructions.

Elizabeth Blackburn shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine for the ­discovery of telomeres – short, repetitive code sequences that cap the tips of chromosomes, those tightly packed bundles of DNA that hold the entire genetic blueprint of an ­organism, from humans to pond scum. The telomeres’ function is to stop chromosomes from fraying at the ends, making sure genes are duplicated correctly during each cell division. Blackburn also found that the length of telomeres is one factor that determines ageing. The shorter the ­telomeres, the more senescent the cell.

Co-author Elissa Epel is a psychologist; both women collaborated on a project that explored links between chronic stress and telomere length, and consequently the impact on ageing. In this book, they argue that growing old needn’t be a ­one-way road to infirmity and decay, and that we can extend the healthy part of our lifespan and push back age-related diseases to the last few years of life.

Even though the book’s ­subtitle ­promises a ­“revolutionary approach to living younger, healthier, longer”, the advice is nothing new: manage chronic stress, exercise, eat and sleep well. Still, it’s advice many of us continue to ignore.

A strength of the book is the depth it adds to these recommendations by explaining how they help stave off disease at a cellular level. Another is its insistence on evidence and warnings about quackery.

However, the writing is slightly repetitive and at times almost glib and, although the authors acknowledge the complexity of the ageing process, one could walk away thinking that healthy ­telomeres might just be the elusive fount of eternal youth.

Medical discoveries (although not telomeres) feature prominently in Science: A History in 100 Experiments, by Mary and John Gribbin (HarperCollins, $59.99). From Archimedes’ third-century BC eureka moment in the bathtub to last year’s observations of gravitational waves, the authors take a grand tour of science via some famous and some less-well-known breakthroughs that have become milestones in our ­understanding of the world.

The focus on experiments, rather than ­discoveries, is an interesting approach to the narrative of science history. Charles Darwin’s story, for example, is told from the perspective of the orchid experiments he did to test his theory of evolution by natural selection.

This approach allows the authors to include long-running efforts that began as purely fundamental research, such as Charles ­Keeling’s decades-long tracking of carbon-dioxide ­concentrations in the atmosphere, and to focus on not only famous names behind discoveries, but also those behind all the trial and error of experimentation. The book’s range is ­refreshingly wide, tapping into all science’s disciplines, including a number of thought experiments, and it is beautifully illustrated with historic images. It can be read as a science ­history or used for quick reference – in case you’re still unsure about Schrödinger’s cat.

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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