The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

August 30, 2012

My favourite science book is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, so when I read Bryson's complimentary words on the dust jacket of The Spark of Life, I was impressed. This text is the exception to the rule that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

The Spark of Life takes the reader on a journey through the history of biophysical research and how ion channels - the proteins responsible for generating bioelectricity - are important for almost every conceivable physiological process. Many of the narrative tools used by Bryson in his book are evident here; the human stories of the researchers involved, the challenges they face, and the relationship between the science and everyday occurrences. This human narrative holds the reader's attention through the science of those discoveries.

That's not to say it is an entirely smooth ride. The introduction outlines Frances Ashcroft's credentials via the narrative of a young sufferer of Type I diabetes and the impact her research has had in improving his life and the lives of other young sufferers of the disease. While her work has had undeniable impact, laying it out in the book's opening salvo - with the emotionally charged imagery of sick children - seemed to me to be laying it on a little thick. On a couple of occasions the human narrative is also taken too far when relatively obscure public figures are used to exemplify sufferers of rare diseases. This is unnecessary, especially given that for short periods elsewhere in the book, Ashcroft shows that the science can often provide a compelling narrative in its own right. However, this is nitpicking in the extreme and my criticism of the book ends here.

I am someone who studies ion channels and so much of the history of this research was already known to me from historical texts and the apocryphal stories passed from supervisor to student down the decades. But it was marvellous to read a history of my scientific niche, collated in one accessible tome, and to know that these stories can now be read and understood by an audience outside the university lab and the lecture theatre. That is not to say that I didn't learn anything. Far from it: The Spark of Life is very well researched and covers areas of comparative fish and plant physiology that most human physiologists will not have come across. The book also contains important details from historical studies that have given me ideas for my own research.

But this is not simply a book for a niche market; it should also be well received by a wide audience. It offers a fascinating and accessible introduction to what is often perceived to be a difficult subject. The reader is led wonderfully through the history of galvanism and early studies on frog muscle twitches induced by electricity stored in Leyden jars, plus the personal relationships between early researchers with differing hypotheses on the nature of biological electricity. Ashcroft carefully and clearly explains the nature of classical nerve and muscle action potentials, and goes on to describe how ion channels play important roles in sensory perception, hormone regulation, reproductive biology and almost any other physiological process you care to mention. Yet all this science is explained while maintaining the reader's interest with a human narrative that makes The Spark of Life very easy to read without getting bogged down in the scientific details.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

By Frances Ashcroft, Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781846143014, Published 28 June 2012

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