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Herding Hemingway's Cats


Kat Arney calls herself “The Nigella of Science” on her Twitter profile. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Food Channel, but I do like science. And Kat Arney’s book Herding Hemingway’s Cats, subtitled Understanding How Our Genes Work promised to be an interesting read when I spotted it.

Genes: how they work and how they are regulated? Is it methyl groups? What role do the histones play? Do we really know what is epigenetics? Going from the genetic code, those four bases A,C,G and T to the living organism; it’s really complicated. What do we really know for sure? Can we ever figure it out? Kat Arney sets out to learn more about this and she takes us along on the journey as she talks to front line researchers around the world over coffee, drinks or Skype to learn of their take on the question.

The human genome project was supposed to help, but like all the processes of science as it answered some fundamental questions it led to a whole lot of new ones. There has been so much new information about genomics, genetics, genes and epigenetics over the past few years that has been hard to keep up with it all. I have read and reviewed on this blog a number of books over the past few years. This is perhaps the first one that I have read that really pushed me to examine what I know and what I don't know about genomics. The author spends very little time going over the basics. I think she assumes this book will be read by people with a working knowledge of textbook biology. She examines a lot of what we knew or take for granted and challenges it.

Arney makes it very clear that Occam's razor may be the initial guide in chemistry or physics, but she strongly suggests that it really doesn't exist in a biological situation which has evolved over millions and millions of years. We cannot just assume that the simplest explanation is the best explanation. Maybe the simple analogy may help us to understand how something may work but once we start digging below the surface of the genome we see that there are a lot of complications. She makes it clear in many parts of the book that things aren't as clear-cut as a school biology class might make them out to be.

Arney does not use the term ‘operational definition’ in her book the way a school science teacher might, yet she presents a perfect reason why we use the term when she questions the definition of a gene. Ultimately she tells us that scientists seem to use situational definitions.

Throughout the book, she tell us about “the banks of control switches for our genes, zombie genes, long and short non-coding RNAs, miniature Smorf genes, genes within other genes, alternatively spliced and edited genes, jumping genes, imprinted genes, wobbly genes…the list goes on and will doubtless continue to grow in the future.” I thought when I started to read this book that I was going to finish with a fairly significant understanding of how genes are regulated. By the time I finished the book I developed a fuller appreciation of the very wide range of controls that have been discovered and an appreciation that many more are probably yet to come.

If you are a high school teacher looking for some lesson plans this is not that book. But, if you are looking to learn in a concise manner the latest research in genetics, genomics and gene regulation on a worldwide basis, this is one of the most fantastic books you will find.

Why Hemingway's Cats? I'm not going to give away the ending. You'll have to read it yourself.

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Herding Hemingway's Cats

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