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Wandering

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Not Suitable as an Audiobook

Overall
1 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
1 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2021-04-03

There is a caveat at the outset of the book -- that the audiobook refers to tables and graphs that are found only in the print version. This is confirmed in the first few minutes.

Systems biology is an interesting and complex subject that, apparently, cannot easily be communicated without tables and graphs. In any event, the author of this audiobook needs the tables and graphs, but for the listener the absence of tables and graphs makes many important points completely incomprehensible.

I recommend buying the book in hard copy or Kindle if you are interested in the subject. I would not buy the audiobook.

Not Historical or Balanced

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2021-04-03

When discussing the reasons why women’s scientific articles appear to be cited less frequently than those written by men, Walter Isaacson quotes from a study that showed that women tend to be more realistic and less boastful than men in assessing the importance of their work. Hence, readers may be less excited and less inclined to give the article great significance.

That point is lost on neither Isaacson, or Jennifer Doudna, his subject. The importance of CRISPR gene editing, and Jennifer Doudna as one of its pioneers, is greatly overstated in this book. Also, it is evident that Isaacson considers himself to be an historian of science, but this book would not be approved by real historians of science. Paul Morange, perhaps the leading historian of the science of biochemistry, wrote an excellent article critiquing a paper about the “Heroes of CRISPR” that Isaacson also cites in this book. But many of the criticisms of Morange could also be directed towards Isaacson. The most telling criticism is that historians of science should not rely on interviews of the participants. This, of course, is the opposite of the approach of journalists, for whom personal interviews are the central source of information. Interviews may give news magazine articles a certain punch, but they are not useful for real history of science.

Also, Isaacson is too eager a proponent of what has been called a “craze” for CRISPR. The discoverers of CRISPR did not invent gene editing. It is believed to be an easier and more precise technology than other gene editing tools, but even that is being disputed. And, editing human genes is of no use if the new genes cannot be delivered to the nucleus of the cell, and then to the right place on the DNA. CRISPR itself does not assist in solving those monumental tasks. When someone has found out how to deliver edited genes to target cells or tissues, and have the genes expressed reliably, that will be a genuine landmark in biology and medicine.

Finally, Isaacson is too eager to promote Doudna as the foremost hero of CRISPR. No doubt she is an outstanding scientist, but scores of outstanding scientists all contributed small but important pieces of knowledge to the overall discovery. The individual stories of many of the scientists, including Doudna, are far from heroic. Yes, she and the others were initially motivated by bona fide scientific curiosity, but the lust for money, power and fame add a tawdry aspect to the “race” to be the first to make advances – a race that one scientist may win by only a few weeks over several others, hardly the distinction of a truly exceptional innovation. It is hard to consider Doudna a hero when she is also one of the largest recipients of funding by the US military, which claims it is interested in defences against weaponized CRISPR generated microorganisms, but which obviously has an equal interest in weaponizing CRISPR itself. (The fact that Doudna, along with Charpentier, were anointed by the Nobel committee is no sure sign that they two were actually exceptional in CRISPR development. Given that the rules say only three can win, the two are likely as deserving recipients as most of the other contenders, but I do not believe they are clearly more deserving as many other contenders).

All in all, this is more a hagiography of Doudna (and CRISPR) than history. If some is interested in the science and the history of the science, go on line (and be discerning). There are many, much better, resources.

2 people found this helpful

It Wasn't Just Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2021-03-20

If you are thinking about buying this book, you already know the heroic tale of Watson, Crick and Wilkins, with the pilfered crystalography from Rosalind Franklin. But it is just that -- a tale, with a few mythic heroes. Biology does not appear to be like physics in the early 20th century, where brilliant individuals came to astonishing insights. Instead, biology advances through years of toil by countless scientists, all grinding away at small parts of very big problems.

The structure of DNA was such a problem. Before 1950, many of the main points were known, or at least had been tentatively suggested: that DNA is the molecule that carries the inheritance principle; the helical structure; the four bases, the possibility that its specificity (and hence the ability to carry genetic information) might reside in the order of the base pairs; that sequences of base pairs might correspond to amino acids; and the possibility of transferring genes from one organism to another would alter the second organism (at least in certain bacteria).

Matthew Cobb tells the story of all these discoveries in this brilliant book. Of course, he also tells the story of the double helix, and the suggestion that it explains how DNA could be replicated in mitosis and meiosis. The insights of Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin were indeed brilliant and deserve to be celebrated, but in the history Cobb tells they are members of a large and brilliant group, not the sole "discoverers" of the DNA structure. Nor could they even be said to be the culminating discoverers, because many more insights were proposed by many more researchers after 1953, the year of their major papers.

I am a big Matthew Cobb fan. He has also written a remarkable history of neuroscience, called The Idea of the Brain. Readers of that book will recognize large areas about the information science dealt with also in this book. I am not sure that parts of the discussion of information theory are strictly relevant. Obviously, the genetic code is information, and the mechanisms for determining gene expression can be understood as examples of positive and negative feedback loops. But pure information is, well, information. It is not material. By contrast, the information in the gene is entirely material. DNA is a physical template for mRNA, and mRNA is a physical template for amino acid sequences. Thus, the theory of pure information is really beside the point. That said, the discussion of information theory, and some of its personalities, is well worth a listen.

PERFORMANCE

Imagine you are listening to a brilliant biography of Napoleon, and the narrator keeps pronouncing his last name "Bonpaparte"; or you are listening to Lord of the Rings, and narrator calls the wizard "Glandalf". This is such an audiobook. Its about deoxyribonucleic acid. Not deSoxyribonucleic acid, as the narrator insists on calling it. Its not as if the word has a tricky silent s: there is no S. Its not as if this is an obscure substance in some minor corner of the story. The whole book is about deoxyribonucleic acid. An otherwise competent narration completely ruined.

A Harlequin Romance, with Zoology Thrown In

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-08-25

As most reviewers note, the story takes place in a marsh on the North Carolina coast, in the mid-20th century.
The descriptions of the marsh and the many creatures that live in it are beautifully and lovingly rendered. And the story, about small girl who lives alone in the marsh from about nine years of age, begins with great promise. But all too soon the book becomes a Harlequin Romance, with random zoology lectures thrown in (and one brief physics lecture also). The female hero is hauntingly beautiful and absurdly well accomplished. At ten years old, after her family have abandoned her one by one, she learns to earn a living digging mussels and smoking fish. Thereafter, this ten year old grows up by literally by herself in the marsh. Despite having exactly one day of schooling in her life, her first boyfried teaches her to read over a few weeks one spring when she is 14. By the end of the summer she is reading whole biology textbooks. At 22 she publishes not one, but two zoology books (shell fish; birds) that she has illustrated with her own water colours and oils. Not bad for a girl who has lived essentially in isolation, with no schooling, all her life.

But the worst part is her two romances. This self-confident and supremely accomplished great beauty has romances with two very handsome men, one a scholar and the other just rich. By the time the girl reaches her teens she has developed a healthy interest in clothing and makeup, and she manages to have a beautiful wardrobe (albeit a somewhat used one) and even some lipstick which, ten years after her mother left home, can still be used. In the Harlequin vein, the relationships have a lot of promise of sex, but much more chastity. People cuss a lot, but only very rarely do we hear the actual words. Of course, her affairs with the two man-boys intersect, and she has to choose the right one. You will have to listen yourself to see if she makes the right choice.

I can't believe this book would have received the attention it has received had it not been recommended by famous people.

31 people found this helpful

A Prosecutor's Address to the Jury

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
2 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2019-03-16

The stumbling steps that Japan took between 1931 and 1941, and then throughout the Pacific War, has been the subject of many books. The record of decisions taken or not taken is well known. Herbert P. Bix’s methodical review of the record is as complete as you will find anywhere. From the point of view of tracing that chronology this book is important.

But Bix is not content to lay out the facts. His mission is to indict Hirohito personally as being one of the persons principally responsible for Japan’s entry first into the war in China, and later with the US, the UK, and the Netherlands. His method is that of a prosecutor interpreting all the facts to suit his argument, rather than that of a judge following the evidence to see where it will go. Readers will have to decide whether they find his argument persuasive. I did not.

The foundation of Bix’s argument is the number of national policy documents that bore Hirohito’s seal. This tells us nothing. In the UK, enactments bear the Queen’s signature, yet they do not represent her personal choices. Bix relies on a mountain of military orders that also bear Hirohito’s seal. Again, that tells us nothing. The question to be answered is whether the militarists in government, and in the army and navy, led Hirohito or vice versa. The fact that Hirohito signed military orders could serve both interpretations. Were they his own orders, or orders placed before him for his signature?

Therefore, while I was interested in the bare facts of the chronology, I had to grit my teeth for many hours because of Bix’s interpretations. When army officers go rogue, or are insubordinate, or are unwise, and Hirohito fails to punish or chastise, Bix interprets this as tacit approval. Another observer might conclude that the frequency and magnitude of insubordination is evidence that no one took Hirohito’s approval as important – certainly not necessary. When Hirohito does criticize (“scold” in Bix’s term), but does nothing more, Bix interprets this as hypocrisy. Hirohito really approves the action he is criticizing, and could have reversed it if he wanted to. Another observer might conclude that criticism and scolding marked the limit of Hirohito’s authority. Bix refers time and again to the Meiji constitution that named the emperor as the supreme commander of the armed forces. But for six hundred years at least, the Japanese state was controlled by men who were nominally subordinate to an emperor or Shogun, but actually exercised supreme command. The Meiji emperor, who Hirohito supposedly emanated, was one such. No one can say today how much, if any, real power Meiji exercised. Indeed, Meiji was put into power not because anyone wanted him to exercise power, but because it was expected he would be easily manipulated.

Bix’s focus on Hirohito is odd, because he often notes that the real fault with Japan’s political system was that too many independent actors – the navy and army (two institutions, not one), elder statesmen, the cabinet, the palace functionaries – all scheming and manipulating, many with the ability to nudge or shove events in one direction or another, independent of the others, and independent of any ultimate central authority. Bix’s mission is to paint Hirohito as the central authority with actual power to decide and correct, but at many points he observes that in fact there was no central authority. This too was the real way the Meiji constitution worked. Meiji himself was a nominal emperor, but controlled by loose and undefined networks of oligarchs. What does Bix say changed that to put Hirohito in actual command and control?

I see Hirohito as being one among many people with input into policy decisions, and by no means the most important or authoritative. When one considers his enforced isolation from ordinary social interaction from the moment of his birth (very well told by Bix), it is hard to hold him accountable as one might a person who had an ordinary upbringing and adult relationships. However, as I have said, listeners and readers will have to decide for themselves.

The narrator was not really suitable. His ordinary reading voice sounds like someone from the Beverly Hillbillies (if anyone remembers that show). When reading quotations, he adopts a mild and irritating falsetto. I know many narrators think they have to use funny voices for reading quotations, but with the better narrators it is clear when they are reading the main text, and when they are reading quotations.

4 people found this helpful

An Important Book, Entirely Inappropriate Narrator

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-12-01

This is an extremely important book, not only for those interested in the founding of America, but also for those who wish to understand the origins of the problems of race we face today. Unfortunately, the narrator was wholly unsuited for this book. Most sentences begin with a syllable or two in a falsetto before returning to a normal register. Perhaps this is intended to be interesting, but it comes across as chirpy and jolly. Quite jarring considering the serious and grim subject matter of much of the book. I can't finish it. I will read the book instead.

Truly Poetic

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-10-17

Not all biography can be poetic. A history of an Alexander or a Genghis Khan or a Stalin may be well-written, but the subject matter requires a certain restraint by the author lest it appear that the deplorable is being dignified. In other cases, like the stories of great philosophers or scientists, the bare facts of the subject's life are pretty mundane, so there may appear little material for poetry no matter how truly great the subject. Consider Kant or Fermi.

In other hands, the life of Newton could have fallen into the second category. The outward facts of his daily life were often dull and, in later life, too often tawdry. But the life of his mind was truly glorious. What makes this biography so remarkable is the author's ability to express the majesty and profundity of Newton's great achievements in mathematics and "philosophy" (physics) in language that conveys the beauty of his ideas but without sacrificing scientific rigour and precision.

The narration is masterly. Most often not noticed (as is proper), until one is struck with the felicity of some turn of phrase.

I loved the audiobook and have bought the Kindle as well.

1 person found this helpful

Deutsch does not rhyme with Pooch

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-10-17

The "author", the Charles River Editors, sounds like a sophomore study group at one of the better Boston universities. This book does not prove otherwise. The history is quite creditable, well structured with judicious selections of individuals and incidents that merit attention. One is left with a strong sense of the broad themes, and clear direction where to go for more information.

Unfortunately, the authors' language sometimes gets away from them. For example, I doubt that knowledge of the Brothers Grimm was ever "omnipotent" in 19h century Germany. (Omnipresent? Ubiquitous?)

The narrator's voice and delivery are pleasant enough, although sometimes one has the impression that the narrator fears his studio time is about to run out. What is unforgivable is his mangling of German pronunciation. Ok, not everyone knows that the "v's" in German sound like "f's" in English, German w's sound like English v's, and not everyone knows how to pronounce "Moltke" (hint: not moult-key) But surely everyone knows that "deutsch" does not rhyme with "pooch". Especially if such a person is being paid to narrate a book about German history.

Often Well Written, but Shallow, Cranky and Old

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 2018-02-09

These essays are often well written, but they are shallow in substance, cranky (in both senses, odd and peevish) and regurgitative.

Cranky-odd: He thinks there is a grand conspiracy between university professors and the dark government. There are certainly instances of that (Kissinger), but not grand conspiracy. He thinks Roosevelt conspired with English spies to dupe American into joining WWII. Yes, Roosevelt was deceptive and, yes, the British did try to influence US public opinion, but it was not the grand conspiracy that Vidal paints. And anyway, WWII was not WWI: American should have been against Hitler from 1939, not wait until Hitler declared war on the US. Vidal thinks Charles Lindbergh (a Vidal family friend) was a victim of this conspiracy. No, Lindbergh was a victim of being on the wrong side of a epochal question, and an anti-Semite to boot. Vidal sees a great grand conspiracy that links agro-business and farm foreclosures the Ruby Ridge killings, bully-cop drug busts and, of course, the IRS. I can't even begin to comment on that.

Vidal's general political views are no the left, where I am also. But ordinary when ordinary left-wing views are tainted by cranky-odd conspiracy theories, the author becomes cranky-peevish. As is Vidal.

The oddest and most disappointing part of this collection is that you think it will deal with the American Empire at the end of the 20th Century. There is some of that, but it is mostly about America in mid-century, material he has already covered -- more than once --in earlier books. Indeed, his most tedious essay is a rebuttal to a review of one of his earlier books. As a general matter, a writer should never rebut reviews of his own books. It is never pretty, and it is not pretty here.