Where matriarchs mix it up with bone hunters

Frontiers 01
March 29, 2002

Science now takes up bookshop shelf yardage in record amounts. But there is a niche that was abandoned almost 40 years ago when the Penguin Science Review ceased appearing. This book aims to fill it. If even the most minor of sports deserves its own yearbook, why not science?

In just 125 pages, edited by Tim Radford of The Guardian newspaper, Frontiers 01 manages chapters on everything from cosmology to matriarchy. Many of the contributors will be familiar to readers of The Guardian, and indeed of The THES . The style is easy if sometimes baggy, but the terrain covered is impressive.

Tim Hubbard sets a high standard in his genome essay. He avoids yet another canter through the wonders of the genome project itself and looks beyond by explaining why it matters: how genes shape proteins, how they are turned on or off, and how our knowledge of them might lead in time to a full model of how the human body works and how it fails.

In a book of this type, it is almost obligatory to earmark space for Sir Martin Rees; and here he is. But his chapter is not Rees at his best. He spends too long on familiar topics such as inflation in the early universe and the apparent "tuning" of the universe to make it friendly to life. Moreover, he is wrong to date the discovery that stars are more than "points of light" to only five years ago: there are disc images of them from the 1980s, and extrasolar planets began to be found in 1991.

More interesting are the book's shorter, better-focused chapters, such as Paul Murdin on space probes and space stations and Duncan Steel on the Valentine's Day 2000 encounter between Nasa's Near spacecraft and the Eros asteroid.

Also worthwhile, at just a page, are pieces by Radford. One is on bone hunters, including Josh Smith of the University of Pennsylvania. He put the wrong coordinates into his GPS machine before setting off across the Sahara, arrived at the wrong place - and found 6.5 tonnes of bones from a previously unknown dinosaur. Others have been reshaping dinosaur faces (the noses are all wrong in movies, it seems) and finding the land-dwelling ancestors of modern whales.

Radford's look at matriarchy rests on the work of British scientists studying elephants. They have shown that the ability of a social group of elephants to handle interaction with other groups depends on one key variable, the age of the oldest female, who is the repository of knowledge about who is an ally and who a rival.

Like most of today's popular-science writing, Frontiers 01 says little about technology or applied science: no renewable energy, internet or super-efficient cars. But when it does look at practical concerns, its conclusions are valuable. Alastair Hay points out that the threat of biological warfare was a reality long before al-Qaeda became a household name; and that beefed-up public health systems are our best defence against such threats. The problem as Hay sees it is that the fiercely competitive biotechnology and pharmaceuticals industries will never open up to an inspection regime that would remove the risk. Even increased defence spending will always struggle to keep up.

Along with threats of extinction, whether from an "axis of evil" or an asteroid, the book finds time for some whimsy, including a look by David Jones at why ArthurC. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's vision of 2001 did not arrive as predicted. The economics of space exploration are still daunting and little of the technology shown in the film and book exist, from the Moon shuttle to the freezing of humans for the trip to Jupiter.

But despite slow progress on some once-promising technologies, Frontiers 01 leaves no doubt that science is changing at breakneck pace on everything from cancer to tree dating. The pace is such that the main rival to this book is not other books but the newspaper journalism of Radford and his rivals. Old-fashioned market forces will determine whether Frontiers 02 , and onward, actually appear; but if so they will be welcome judging from the standard set by volume one.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .

Frontiers 01: Science and Technology, 2001-02

Editor - Tim Radford
ISBN - 1 903809 23 1
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Price - £10.99
Pages - 125

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