Post Tagged with: "book"

Great Explanations – Crowdfunded science anthology

Excuse the slight off (chemistry) topic post, but I wanted to let folks know about a crowdfunded science anthology I’ve launched via Unbound.

You don’t need a PhD in horology to know that there are piles of great popular science books out there and not enough time to read them all. So I’ve collected a bunch of the best established and emerging science writers – people working at the cutting edge of their own particular disciplines – and asked them to distil their passions into just one chapter each.

The result is Great Explanations, an anthology of the most pressing, fascinating and sometimes just plain overlooked topics from the far reaches of science, engineering and maths topped with a smattering of the philosophy and history of science. These are the subjects that working scientists are most passionate about, or interested in, or surprised by, in their own disciplines – the things they think curious general readers really ought to know.

We’ve also teamed up with Sense about Science, which promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence. Some of the contributing authors are part of their Voice of Young Science network and 15% of the book’s profits will be donated to the charity.

Contributors include:

A whole load more fabulous scientists and writers will be revealed over the next few weeks; stay tuned to our updates to be among the first to find out more.

Of course, if it doesn’t get funded the book will never exist, so pop over to Unbound and pledge!

https://unbound.com/books/great-explanations/

By September 5, 2021 0 comments science events, science news

Biochemistry – A Very Short Introduction



My new book – Biochemistry – A Very Short Introduction is available for pre-order now!

A here’s a sneak preview…

From the simplest bacteria to humans, all living things are composed of cells of one type or another. Amazingly, no matter where on the evolutionary tree they perch, those organisms all have fundamentally the same chemistry. This chemistry must provide mechanisms that allow cells to interact with the external world, a means to power the cell, machinery to carry out all the varied processes, a structure within which everything runs, and of course some sort of governance. Cells, in many ways, are like communities, but controlled and governed through a web of interlocking chemical reactions. Biochemistry is the study of those reactions, the molecules that are created, manipulated, and destroyed as a result of them, and the massive macromolecules (such as DNA, cytoskeletons, proteins and carbohydrates) that form the chemical machinery and structures on which these biochemical reactions take place.

Or, put more succinctly by the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger,

In biology .. a single group of atoms .. produces orderly events marvellously tuned in with each other and the environment according to the most subtle laws.’

Biochemistry is then the endeavour to understand those subtle laws governing those finely tuned orderly events, it is the study of biological molecules and their interactions, and so aims to reveal the molecular basis of life.

Of course, life in all its glory is so much more than just single cells. Cells come together to form multi-cellular organisms which then require a means for individual cells to communicate and ‘trade’ with one another. The organisms, in turn, interact to form the complex webs that are our eco-systems. And all of those interactions are modulated and facilitated through biochemical means. For example, consider the rhodopsin molecules that respond to photons of light, and so act as the first stage of a predator spotting its next meal. Or the olfactory proteins that bind a few minuscule molecules, which trigger a cascade of biochemical reactions that result in prey being alerted to the predator’s presence. Or the antibodies that act as the first guards, recognising the foreign molecules of an invading parasite and triggering the army that is the immune response. All of these processes fall within the realm of biochemistry.

It didn’t take long for an understanding of the chemistry of life to turn into a desire to manipulate it. Drugs and therapies all aim to modify biochemical processes for good or ill: Penicillin, derived from a mould, stops bacteria making their cell walls. Aspirin, with its origins in willow bark, inhibits enzymes involved in inflammatory responses. A few nanograms of botulinum toxin (botox), can kill by preventing the release of neurotransmitters from the ends of nerves and so leads to paralysis and death. Alternatively, the same botulinum toxin administered in tiny quantities results in a wrinkle free forehead. This is all biochemistry.

Detailed description of these topics could easily have made it into this book, and some readers may feel I was remiss in neglecting them and other topics as fundamental as vitamins, hormones, chromosomes, and numerous biochemical techniques. But this is after all a very short introduction, and so I had to draw the line somewhere. As a result, for much of the book I’ve focussed on some of the chemistry that occurs within cells. For therein lie the fundamental chemical processes that all life shares.

Finally, the boundaries of biochemistry are ill defined; it overlaps with genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, biophysics and biotechnology. And so I finish with a pair of chapters which explore how fundamental discoveries in biochemistry are influencing these fields and society at large.

By April 19, 2021 0 comments Uncategorized

The Secret Science of Superheroes — the origin story


Remember that League of Extraordinary Scientists? You know, the one’s that wrote a book about superheroes in a weekend. Well their Herculean efforts have come to fruition. The Secret Science of Superheroes (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) is out now and this is what it is where it came from …


If you are going to enjoy a superhero movie (or more pretty much any action film for that matter) you’ve got to be able to suspend disbelief. Especially, for those of us that have a scientific bent. There’s just too much that is just plain impossible and if we whinged about every little detail that wasn’t quite correct we’d sure as hell annoy anyone else trying to enjoy the escapism of a fantasy flick with us. I learnt that particular lesson from my little brother after he hit me because of my incessant complaining about the physical inaccuracies of Road Runner cartoons. I grew out to it, eventually. Or at least learnt to kept my over thinking of animations to myself.

So this book is not about picking holes in movies. Although that is fun … OK, let’s do that a little and get it out of the the way now.

First off spaceships don’t need wings. Without an atmosphere the protrusions are merely decorative. And without any atmosphere there’s no need for them to bank as they turn in the vacuum of space. Plus there is precious little resistance to movement, which means that spacecraft need just as much power to slow down as they did to accelerate (which get’s handly overlooked in the movies). And why do starships always have the same orientation when they meet in space?

Lasers beams — You can’t see them from the side, unless there is something around to scatter the light — see if you can spot the beam next time you use a laser pointer. And whilst we are on the subject, laser beams don’t make ‘puchu puchu’ noises (and even if they did you won’t hear them, at least Alien got that right. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream).

Armour is no good in a crash — It doesn’t matter how much super hard material a superhero encases himself in (we’re looking at you Iron Man), you’re still going to turn to mush when spectacularly crashing into a building. What you really want is something that slows you down gently. That’s why, in the event of a collision, we like cars with airbags and crumple zones, instead of ones constructed from inflexible titanium body work.

Being hit by a bullet (let alone a weightless laser beam) won’t throw you backwards. A 9mm slug, fired from a handgun, has about the same momentum as a water balloon thrown by a child, whilst a football kicked by a professional can easily have 4–5 times the momentum of a bullet. And from my experience water fights rarely result in people getting knocked off their feet by a balloon impact, and footballers loosing their footing is more often the result of their special ability to trip over blades of grass.

All great examples of reality being suspended for the sake of drama. And we’re cool with that, because in a good movie the impossible is allowed, but the improbable isn’t (to paraphrase Aristotle with modern parlance)[1]. So we are fine with faster than light travel, fiery explosions in space (no oxygen = no fire), and laser sound effects. However indestructible metals, webslinging humans and invisibility leave us pondering how science might explain them.

So this book is about trying to suspend the improbable. It is about the ‘missing’ scenes (and science) that could be in movies and comics if what actually gets shown to use on the silver (of flat) screen had any basis in reality. Basically if we accept what we see in the movies what else must be true?
Now I could have taken a typical solitary, leisurely approach to penning this book, holed up in an office writing over months and year. But if I’ve learnt anything from superhero flicks it’s that all the best stories have teams: Give me X-men, The Justice League and the Fantastic Four over the lonely Spiderman or Batman any day. Secondly, faster is better. You never hear of a hero travelling slower than a plodding tortoise or proclaiming to be the most ponderous man alive.

No, a book about heroes needs a more rapid fire, heroic approach. Which is why I assembled a league of extraordinary scientists and set them the Herculean task of writing this book in just 36 hours. Plonked in the middle of the Manchester Science Festival and Salford University’s Science Jam, in a blur of flying fingers worthy of the Flash we cranked out over 200 pages delving into all the nitty gritty science that fascinates us but seems to have been overlooked by movie makers.

Onwards then to some of the most important questions in science. How do heroes handle big data, why did mutant super powers evolve, how might super soldiers be engineered, and just what do superheroes have for breakfast?

But before we get to that, one more thing. Scientist love to categorise things; elements go into periods and groups on a table, life get kingdoms, families and species, matter comes in phases and it goes on. We have a need to take an object or concept and give it a nice neat point on a diagram. And so inevitably, during our frenetic weekend of typing (punctuated with regular trips down rabbit holes — comics strips out of context caused much mirth, google it) a means of charting superpowers emerged. The super hero, intrinsic, extrinsic, location diagram (otherwise known as The SHEILD) also turned out to be a rather neat alternative to the conventional contents page.

Finally, a special thanks to Andy Brunning of Compound Interest fame, for the wonderful infographics that run throughout the book.

 

Image Credit: Andy Brunning

By October 5, 2017 3 comments fun

Twitter Brain’s Chemistry Novel (and other book) recommendations

I’ve been looking for an easy to read book (fiction or non-fiction) to send out to chemistry students before they arrive at Uni. The plan is to have all our first years read the same book before they arrive. With any luck it will give them something to chat about and give our first few lectures a point of reference.

So I asked the twitter brain for its chemistry book recommendations, and here’s what it came up with.

  1. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium Anyone say Greg Benford’s Timescape? More physics but includes NMR, time travel, eco-disaster, and academics.
  2. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium I can recommend an author… Peter Watts.. his first series is chock full of science goodness including chemistry
  3. @sci_ents we’re partial to this one: ht.ly/mrHGn Short stories about a deadly assassin who uses a different poison for each kill
  4. @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents My friend told me to read “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean. I just checked it out from the library!
  5. @Sci_ents I enjoyed ‘The Girls of Atomic City.” It tells the story of the nuclear bomb development from the “blue collar” people working…
  6. @simonbayly @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld It was Mr Levi whom inspired me onto the chemical trail at age 14. Highly recommended reading.
  7. @BytesizeScience @Sci_ents Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” is a Classical example, but highly metaphorical. Downhill from there.
  8. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Mr Tompkins by George Gamow
  9. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld The Periodic Table by Primo Levi isn’t a novel exactly, but it is one of the best books ever.
  10. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents not sure if this counts but “cat’s cradle” by Vonnegut has some nice ideas en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice-nine
  11. @Sci_ents Interesting physics and chemistry in Reflex by Dick Francis. Not exactly concepts though, more application.
  12. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld not really a novel but The Periodic Kingdom by P W Atkins is a great read
  13. @Sci_ents The Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers. Not much chemistry until the clincher which is chemical concept. (DM for spoiler)
  14. @Sci_ents When I was undergrad, one grad inorg cume at WUSTL included question, “Who killed Missy Moonbeam in The Delta Star?”
  15. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld
    Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
  16. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Susan Gaines’ Carbon Dreams?
  17. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld – Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, Penny Le Couteur
  18. @Sci_ents Not exactly fitting the criteria but Primo Levi’s Periodic Table comes to mind
  19. @Sci_ents Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primo_Levi some named as best science novel ever
  20. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld or cat’s cradle if gravity’s rainbow is too much of a slogger
  21. @Sci_ents Emm short answer no. Long shot- Dune. Spice as a drug, water harvesting and terraforming. Best I can do ad hoc
  22. @Sci_ents A Whiff of Death (I. Asimov) — murder mystery set in Chemistry department… The Delta Star (J. Wambaugh) — similar plot.
  23. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld gravity’s rainbow, imopolex g

 

Did we miss any?