Breathing life into a symbol of death

Human Bones
November 18, 2005

R. McNeill Alexander is an acclaimed zoologist and authority on vertebrate skeletal morphology, function and biomechanics. Human Bones: A Scientific and Pictorial Investigation is an enjoyable, lavish education on the human skeleton, its structure, function and evolution. Alexander possesses an impeccable aptitude for conveying scientific knowledge to a general audience with style and superb instruction. His book is also of considerable relevance to students and academics in many scientific disciplines including medicine, archaeology, forensics, orthopaedics, comparative zoology and dentistry.

From the outset, the author immerses our minds in hard scientific facts and insightful concepts. We are taught that bones are living organs that adapt all the time and that this view is crucial to an understanding of the nature of our skeleton. I particularly like the manner in which he exposes a most illuminating fact - that bone cells are the most active in the body. This challenges the general preconception of bones as inactive fossilised tissue and sets up the style for the rest of the book.

There is much more to the study of human bones than description.

Alexander organises the core text in a manner typical of a textbook. We are given methodical descriptions in detail of the structure and function of every part of the skeleton beginning at the skull and ending up at the feet. However, he enlivens each paragraph with arresting facts and easy-to-understand explanations using a flowing, engaging style. What often makes good general scientific writing is the use of metaphors or everyday experiences to convey a scientific explanation. Alexander does this seamlessly. The text reads without cliche or excessive technical jargon. It possesses a pleasing balance of fact, explanation, metaphor and the everyday.

Mention must be made of the splendid colour photography by Aaron Diskin that accompanies the superb lucid writing and forms a considerable part of the book. The pictures are of exceptional clarity, vividness and detail, such that the precise detail of the structure, shape, form and texture of human bones are instantly conveyed to the viewer. There is also a semblance of humour to the images of dead bones, as though someone had breathed life into them. It is an imaginative way of capturing our skeletal structures.

Here is an example of art and science complementing each other. A slight quibble would be that sometimes it might have been useful to have had graphics indicating areas of interest as explained in the text.

Human Bones is a comprehensive, insightful work that includes fascinating chapters on diseased and damaged bones, natural variation and structure, the evolution of the skeleton in mammals and the stepwise changes that led to the emergence of the present form of our skeleton. It reveals our origins and subsequent development. Biology only really has true meaning in the context of evolution.

This book reaches out to expert and novice alike. I would recommend it for science education at sixth form and university levels.

David W. Green is a postdoctoral research fellow in biomimetic tissue engineering, Southampton University.

Human Bones: A Scientific and Pictorial Investigation

Author - R. McNeill Alexander
Publisher - PI Press
Pages - 208
Price - £26.99
ISBN - 0 13 147940 7

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