Mathematics of Life

by ian stewart

published by profile books in 2011

What is this book about?

‘Mathematics of Life’ by Ian Stewart was a book that inspired to relate what I love about maths to what I love about biology. It studies the links between maths and biology which form the emerging discipline of mathematical biology, concluding that mathematics is the sixth revolution of life, following the microscope, classification, evolution, genetics and the structure of DNA. This was a grand proclamation to make, but Stewart justified it in his thorough exploration of the application of maths to biology. From the golden ratio to the human genome project, mathematics underlies the processes used in biology and the phenomenon of the natural world. By using probability, topology and mathematical models, biologists are now able to simplify real life problems to open a door to enlightenment.

Area of Interest for Further Research

  • Using multiple dimensions to unravel viruses

In mathematics, a dimension can be defined as the number of independent coordinates needed to specify the things that belong to it. Therefore, we are able to look not only at space with three dimensions, but at space with four dimensions or maybe even more. In this way, familiar objects can be considered in space of multiple dimensions, and as a result are often made simpler to understand. Viruses are very little understood, and part of this is their complex shape. The majority of viruses are icosahedral (20 sided shape) or helical, with the main form observed being the incredible icosahedron. An icosahedron is one of the platonic solids, constructed of regular equilateral triangles, consequently it has 120 symmetries. This is very hard for us to imagine, but by applying mathematical rules we are able to consider the icosahedron in multiple dimensions. By taking the points in space which form an icosahedron, it becomes clearer how it is constructed. In this way, we can understand how viruses are constructed: the first step in learning how to destroy them.

This is something that amazes me. Even abstract maths can be combined with abstract biology to create an idea which can realistically revolutionise health care.

How good was this book?

I thought this book was wonderful. Stewart uses approachable language to bring across fantastic ideas. His clever structure enables the reader to pick through the areas of most interest, and he ha covered a vast array of topics, giving a taste of the mathematics of life. He even covered controversial topics, including the question of ‘what is life?’ and whether aliens may exist. At points, biology and mathematics seemed to diverge and it was possible to question how relevant the subjects were to each other within a particular topic, however, this was always reconciled at the end of the chapter when Stewart concluded by drawing together the different points he had made. The radical assertion of mathematics’ importance in biology is something that many mathematicians and biologists would disagree on. However, it is an idea that I fully agree with.

Who would I advise this book to?

This book would be brilliant for anybody studying both maths and biology at A level, and wondering how these two subjects impact each other. The initial chapters of this book unintentionally cover much of the AS level biology specification with fantastic clarity, whilst providing additional and fascinating background knowledge.

Cat Sense

the feline enigma revealed

by john bradshaw

published by allen lane in 2013

What is this book about?

‘Cat Sense – the feline enigma revealed’ by John Bradshaw explores how cats have changed and developed throughout time to become the modern cat we know and love. It begins by considering when and where the domestication of the cat begun. Unlike dogs, there is very little evidence to support how this process took place but archaeology and other historic accounts, including artwork give us some clues. Furthermore, we can use genetics to investigate which wild cats were the ancestors of our domestic Felis catus. The book then goes on to explore the building relationship of cats with humans. Initially, it is likely that cats were attracted to human civilisations as they began to store food, creating intense populations of rodents. Therefore, humans appreciated the work cats were doing for them in catching mice and rats. This is why cats are so different from dogs in their affection for humans: for the domestication of dogs was based on companionship whilst the domestication of cats was based on hunting. After covering this basic history, Bradshaw goes on to explain how cats think and feel according to research, a lot of which Bradshaw has carried out himself. This follows into the relationships cats have with each other, humans and wildlife. Finally, this is used to question how we keep our cats and consider how we should act to maintain a positive relationship with the domestic cat as we step into the future. In doing this, Bradshaw touches upon the controversial topics of selective breeding and neutering. Generally, neutering of cats is actively encouraged (see poster on right) to prevent the possibly millions of unwanted kittens. However, Bradshaw suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be advocating neutering to such a degree. If all owners have their cats neutered, soon the only fertile cats will be strays – those cats who cannot be caught and detest the sight of humans. These will be the cats breeding our pet kittens, forcing the genetic line of the domestic cat away from an affectionate bond with humans. I was almost shocked at this opinion, but realised how true it is and that in the coming future, this is something we need to consider if we want to continue owning and loving cats.

Areas of Interest for Further Research

  • An Interaction Between Genes and the Environment

I learnt many extremely interesting things from ‘Cat Sense’, which enlightened my biological and historical view of cats and questioned the anthropological relationships we form with them in our society. However, one of the most fascinating discoveries I made was about the Siamese cats’ coat colour. The darker areas on a Siamese cat’s face, paws and ears result from a temperature-sensitive mutation. At body temperature, the hairs will be white, therefore when Siamese kitten are first born they are white all over because their mother’s womb is uniformly warm. However, as they grow, the coolest parts of their bodies – the extremities including face, paws, ears and tail – become darker in colour. Furthermore, cats living near the equator or in very warm houses tend to be lighter than those living in cooler climates. I have never considered temperature sensitive genetics and this is definitely something I would like to look into further.

See my post about Temperature-Sensitive Genes for more information.

How good was this book?

I really enjoyed reading this book, although it took a while to get into. This is because I am less interested in the history of cat domestication and found it hard to follow the exact dates and geographical settings of each area Bradshaw explored. However, it was easy to become engaged by the fantastic experiments which Bradshaw directly referred to. Despite not owning my own pet cats, I was immediately able to appreciate the significance of many of the findings on society’s view of domestic cats.

Who would I advise this book to?

I think this book would contribute greatly to the knowledge of anyone working alongside cats. Whether this be in a cattery, veterinary practice or at home. It would be extremely useful for anyone considering getting more than one cat or anybody interested in finding out more about the mysterious life lead by our feline friends.

Owl

by desmond morris

published by reaktion books ltd in 2009

 

What is this book about?

‘Owl’ by Desmond Morris is part of the Animal Series published by Reaktion Books. It looks at owl anthropology, investigating the relationship humans have had with owls throughout history. It begins by considering prehistoric owls, then moving into ancient, medicinal, symbolic, emblematic, literary and tribal owls. Throughout the text is accompanied by appropriate pictures depicting what is being described whether this be an owl cave painting, an ancient Greek myth or the emblem of a football club.

Morris also considers why the owl has been depicted like this throughout history, exploring how opinions of it have developed and changed. From evil to wise and powerful, many different cultures have influenced the myths and legends surrounding owls.

Finally, Morris explains owls biologically from an evolutionary perspective. He looks at classification, highlighting some extraordinary owls of both the past and present.

Areas of Interest for Further Research

  • Owl Face

One of the first ideas Morris picks up on is the reason humans are fascinated with owls. I have always loved owls, filling my bedroom with pictures and ornaments, though never knowing why. Morris suggests that it is the ‘broad head and the big, forward-facing eyes’ meaning that owls remind us of ourselves. We are genetically programmed to respond to maternal eyes and therefore, the owl triggers a reaction in our bodies giving us a sense of closeness to it. It struck me that this is replicated in other animals, such as kittens, and I would love to look at the chemical reactions behind this.

How good was this book?

I really enjoyed this book because of both the content and the quality of the writing. I found it engaging and felt fascinated by everything Morris picked up on. He has carefully selected interesting snippets of information, giving enough detail but not too much about each one. There is also a brilliant balance of sociological and biological facts, bringing out the true character of the owl depicted by both humans and nature.

Who would I advise this book to?

I would suggest that anyone would enjoy this book. We have all experienced a connection with owls, especially as they become ever more fashionable. The approachable language and structure make it a fantastic and accessible reminder of the history behind our love of owls.

A Street Cat Named Bob

by James Bowen

 

I recently read the book ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen. It has been a number 1 bestseller and is an inspirational story of homeless, recovering drug addict who was brought back to reality by a cat named Bob.

For me, this book really highlighted the psychological impact that animals have on us. When James took Bob busking with him, immediately he drew people’s attention and began giving more generously. The majority of people are delighted to see animals, especially when interacting with their owners, reminded of the emtional relationships we can form with our pets. This is particularly apparent in cats as their forward facing eyes remind us of our own offspring, triggering emotions of affection and protection.

But it was not solely the increased public attention which supported James as he recovered from a life of misery. He felt like he now had a responsibility. In the book he describes Bob as his baby, like a child. The focus of his life turned away from himself and onto caring for Bob. This role of responsibility is important in our lives, helping us to empathise and work harder for those we love. As James proved, we then reap the benefits of working harder and forming relationships.

I really enjoyed this book despite its simplistic language and straight-forward message, it taught me a great deal about the emotional and physical worth of pets and reminded me about the significance of animals in our society, and those across the world.

Your Inner Fish

by neil shubin

published by Penguin Books in 2009

What is this book about?

‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin explores the evolutionary history of the human body. The author begins by considering fossil evidence including Tiktaalik which was discovered in 2004 and demonstrates an intermediate between fish and primitive land-living animals. From this point onwards, he relates humans with fish, amphibians and even microorganisms through hands and fingers, teeth, heads, bodies and the senses including smell, sight and hearing. Throughout the book he uses knowledge of genetic makeup and embryology to support the theories he puts forwards, explaining laboratory experiments which of turned on or off specific genes in embryos to find out what happens. For example, in the early 1990s Walter Geyring identified Pax 6 – the gene responsible for the formation of eyes. He did this through experimenting with the gene in flies. If the gene was made active in the antenna, an eye grew there. If the gene was made active in a body segment, an eye grew there. He then took a Pax 6  gene from a mouse and made it active in a fly. The mouse gene caused an eye of a fly to grow on the fly!

By identifying these genes responsible for major body processes, Shubin explains that our evolution can be traced through hundreds of species because the same genes are responsible for the same body processes in almost all animals.

Finally, Shubin uses our evolutionary history to explain the reason for some medical implications including obesity, sleep apnoea, hiccups and hernias.

Areas of Interest for Further Research

  • Scent genes in mammals

In his book, Shubin revealed that all mammals have the same genes for smelling. However, the reason humans have a poorer sense of smell than many other mammals, for example dogs, is because although we have the genes to smell as efficiently, they are active anywhere in our body. Similarly, dolphins and whales have all of the genes necessary to smell. However, none of them are active and therefore they cannot smell. This is thought to be because they do not need to be able to smell to when a genetic mutation occurs, turning off a scent gene, natural selection does not work against the mutation and it gets passed on to the next generation. This is thought to be the same case in humans and other primates for a correlation has been found between improving sight and regressing scent, indicating that when sight is able to compensate for smell mutations turning off scent genes can be passed on without being halted by natural selection.

  • Hiccups

Shubin explains that hiccups are caused when a spasm in a major nerve results in muscles in our body wall, diaphragm, neck and throat contracting. This causes a sharp inspiration of air followed by the glottis at the back of our throat closing the top of our airway, producing the ‘hic’ sound. He then suggests that the nerve spasm is a product of our fish history because the brain originally controlled breathing in fish. Therefore, the brain stem also controls our breathing. However, the impulses have to travel a long distance from the brain to the diaphragm and can be easily interrupted – resulting in a spasm. However, the spasm is only the first part of the hiccup for the ‘hic’ results from the closing of the glottis. It has been found that this is probably a result of our history from tadpoles because when breathing, they have to close their glottis rapidly after inspiring so water can pass into their mouth and over their gills but not into their lungs.

Ways to stop hiccups include breathing excess carbon dioxide and expanding the walls of the chest. Experiments have shown that doing this to a tadpole stops them gill breathing.

How good was this book?

I enjoyed this book and I thought that it followed a good structure with clear subheadings. This meant that it was good to pick at, opening anywhere, or to read from beginning through to end. I found it interesting that it incorporated so many different ideas beginning with palaeontology and exploring genetics as well as embryology concluding with medicine. It used easy to understand metaphors which were often humorous, adding to the overall appeal of the book.

However, I found that I was not fully captivated during the introduction when the discovery of Tiktaalik was discussed in great lengths. I found that it took a long time to reach the point from which the focus of the book was made clear. But despite this weak beginning, the rest of the book travelled at a good pace exploring complex ideas in enough detail to make them understandable but not overwhelming.

Who would I advise this book to?

I would suggest that anyone interested in palaeontology and its modern day relevance should read this book. Furthermore, anyone interested in human evolution and the fascinating link it has with medicine should definitely  give ‘Your Inner Fish’ by Neil Shubin a go.