The week in books

April 23, 2009

How We Live and Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells by Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine, department of anatomy and developmental biology, University College London. Faber, £14.99, ISBN 9780571239115

"If printed out in text this size, the information encoded in the famous double helix would fill an entire library. But, warns Wolpert, we should be wary of regarding this as a straightforward blueprint for a person. Our genes directly determine only which proteins are made. These proteins then make cells, and the interaction of these countless cells makes a human being. Even relatively straightforward characteristics such as eye colour involve hundreds of genes. So Wolpert has 'little sympathy with those who talk about genes for this or that, such as good looks or intolerance'."

Stephen Cave, Financial Times

Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind by Philip Ball, science writer in residence, department of chemistry, University College London. Vintage, £9.99, ISBN 9780099499442

"Universe of Stone is more than a book about one building. It is Ball's contention that Chartres is a 'monumental expression' of the medieval world view, and so his book is also a portrait of an age. The 12th century was a period of remarkable transition, one as significant, in its way, as the later Renaissance. After the ravages of the Dark Ages, Christendom recovered its confidence. Great wealth was accumulated (both from trade and from the Crusades) and, even more crucially, new ideas flowed."

William Skidelsky, The Observer

Thatcher's Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era by Richard Vinen, professor of modern European history, King's College London. Simon & Schuster, £20.00, ISBN 9781847371751

"The really refreshing thing about Vinen's elegant and zippy book is that it eschews the narrow partisanship that has always disfigured so much writing about the Iron Lady and her times. He admits that he has never been tempted to vote Conservative, but he is also big enough to concede that 'a little humility ... is in order from those of us who denounced Thatcher when she was in power'."

Dominic Sandbrook, The Sunday Times

The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih, assistant professor and director of technology, University of Hong Kong Journalism and Media Studies Centre. Aurum, £14.99, ISBN 9781845134730

"Wikipedia may be the most astonishing of the internet's many miracles: a not-for-profit encyclopedia far more extensive than its commercial rivals, competitive in some tests of accuracy, and ranked among the world's top ten websites, created by allowing any passer-by to edit or contribute. A book on the subject seems contrary to its spirit: surely it would be more correct to issue a rough version - even a "stub" - and wait for it to be expanded?"

Peter Robins, The Daily Telegraph.

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