Archive for February, 2010

Science & Soul: Book Review: Signs of Life – How Complexity Pervades Biology

Richard Sole and Brian Goodwin compiled a book detailing the applications and seemingly inescapable presence of complex systems in the biological sciences in their pioneering book Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology. Now let me begin by saying that this is not light reading and probably not for everyone.  That is not to say you need a science background to understand this book.  The authors did a wonderful job of separating the technical science and math from the main themes of the book and use a multitude of pictures, diagrams, graphs, charts, and figures to detail their thesis.


Signs of Life

Scientists have long reconstructed systems and analyzed their individual parts to understand how they fit together with regards to the whole.  It has worked wonderfully for some time.  However, now scientists are realizing that in nearly every field of biology from cellular and molecular biology to ecology and physiology that analyzing the parts of the whole simply does not yield predictable behavior.  Why do certain stem cells become skin cells and others become neurons if they have the same genome?  Why do some creatures seem to hold up an entire ecosystem if only a small percentage of animals actually eat these species?    Sole and Goodwin begin by explaining how nonlinear interactions between individuals form complex systems.  This understanding of complex systems and the emergent behavior, that is, behavior that cannot be performed by individual units but can be performed by the system as a whole, can offer us novel ways of approaching these deep problems of biology.  Sole and Goodwin show us how issues once considered inexplicable, are now being unraveled and explained with complex systems biology.

Grade: A-

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Science & Soul: Book Review: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Author and journalist Christopher McDougall begins his journey with one simple question: “Why do my feet hurt?”  McDougall was an avid runner whose running days seemed to be ending due to acute foot pain.  Cushioned shoes and orthotics did not seem to help.  Running is simply bad for you, claimed most sport doctors.  But then, McDougall stumbled across the story of the Tarahumara, or, in their own language, Raramuri, which directly translates to “running people.”  These indigenous people from the Copper Canyon region of Mexico, an area known for its harsh beauty (Copper Canyon is the deepest canyon in the world).  They hunt their prey by exhaustion: they chase their prey for several miles to tire it out and then can catch it and kill it.  Also, they competed in one of the most difficult ultra-marathons (100 miles plus at a time) in the world and shattered the world record.  Then, disenfranchised by the modern world, disappeared back into the canyons.  Not only are the Tarahumara excellent runners, they are also known for serenity, and peaceful, good-hearted nature. Oh yeah, and the winner was 50 years old and ran in tire-soled sandals. ” So why, if these guys can do all this into their fifties, why can’t I run 3 miles,” McDougall asks.  The answer, he finds, is in the shoes, or lack thereof.  We evolved to run great distances in our bare feet, not oddly shaped shoes (I’ll post about the science of barefoot running one of these days).


Born to Run

He then embarks on a quest to find and learn from the mysterious Raramuri the way to run.  To do so, he must evade dangerous Mexican drug cartels,  deal with outrageous long-distance runners, and find the elusive tribe itself!  The result is Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. This book is part adventure, part running guide, part history, and part science.  I enjoyed this book so much that I polished off this book in a single night.  Without a doubt, this is the most fun book I have read in a long time.

Grade: A

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