I can’t get mad at science

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

I remember hearing about this book when I first came out and thinking “That sounds interesting” and moving on. It got serious fanfare in the US but I think over here it was a quieter success and now I’ve read it I wonder why it wasn’t a bigger deal here as well, because it’s an amazing book.

I mean, I get it really. It’s an American story by an American author dealing with some specifically American issues – segregation and civil rights, medical care and insurance, education of the poor. But it’s also a universal story. I mean, Henrietta Lacks’ cells are at the heart of biological and medical research all over the world.

“[I’ve wondered] what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever – bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions…or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine…I’m pretty sure that she – like most of us – would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.”
– Rebecca Skloot

I should explain. Henrietta Lacks was a very poor black woman who died of aggressive cervical cancer in 1951, aged just 31. She was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where a Dr Gey was particularly interested in cervical cancer, as he was studying its two different known forms, so he was taking tissue samples of every cervical tumour he came across. He also happened to be trying to grow human cells in the lab but couldn’t seem to keep any alive, so any tissue samples he collected were also passed to his assistant for that purpose. Lacks’ cancer cells, labelled HeLa after her, didn’t die but instead multiplied. And they kept on multiplying day after day, something which was unprecedented in human tissue.

This was huge news scientifically speaking. Lab-grown human cells gave scientists an intermediary between animal testing and live human subjects. Suddenly they could infect real human cells with diseases and see how they reacted. They could test medicines and biological theories. Specific chromosomes were identified for the first time using HeLa cells. The polio vaccine was developed, as were IVF and chemotherapy. Many huge breakthroughs in science can be traced back to Henrietta Lacks. So it’s strange and jarring to read that she died so poor she didn’t even have a gravestone (until, that is, a year or so after this book was published when Skloot had prompted enough people to remember Lacks that the money was finally raised and a memorial service held). In fact, Henrietta Lacks wasn’t even asked permission for her tissue sample to be used in research. And her family didn’t know about HeLa cells until two decades after her death, when they found out from a journalist.

“John Hopkin [sic] didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part.”
– Sonny Lacks

“It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”
– Lawrence Lacks

It’s an often sad story, and it would be easy to be judgemental about the money made by pharmaceutical companies from HeLa while many of the Lacks family can’t afford basic healthcare or decent education. But that would be an oversimplification and Skloot is a better writer than that. Dr Gey freely sent samples of HeLa cells to fellow researchers all over the world, so his only profit was his continued career. And there were very few laws surrounding medical ethics in the 1950s; it was common to take human tissues without consent, or perform tests on patients without explaining why.

Skloot combines three different stories here: the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family; the scientific impact of HeLa, including the development of ethics laws and lab procedures; and her own investigations, which lasted more than a decade and had their roots in her biology degree course, in which Henrietta Lacks merited just one sentence in one lecture. Skloot really did have to be dogged in her pursuit of the truth. The Lacks family had not been treated well by previous journalists and took a lot of persuading to co-operate.

“Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”
– Deborah Lacks

She manages all three strands brilliantly, with wit and insight. I learned a lot about the science of HeLa cells, about medical ethics (and the historical lack of them), about the Lacks family. Skloot depicts it all honestly, warts and all. The Lacks family history is a colourful one that includes slavery, STDs, domestic violence, drugs, prison and many a family feud. And the scientific story, while largely a positive one, also includes some disturbing moments.

This is an important story that needed to be told but Skloot wasn’t the first to try. The difference is that she was the first to do it well. This is a gripping, entertaining read and deserves all praise and success that comes its way. When I did a little further reading on Skloot’s website I discovered that with the profits from this book she set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides grants for medical and educational expenses to those in need, particularly members of the Lacks family. I think I have developed a small crush on her.

Published 2010 by Macmillan.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

Being completely and utterly stuck can be a good thing

13 Things That Don't Make Sense

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: the Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
by Michael Brooks

This is my second read in my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge. It deals with quite a disparate range of areas of science. I enjoyed reading it but little of the science has stayed with me.

To be fair, while reading it I was impressed by how well it explained some areas of science I had previously found hard to grasp, such as redshift. And I enjoyed interesting random titbits with Tim. But I did have reservations as well.

“I like to think of scientists as on top of things, able to explain the world we live in, masters of their universe. But maybe that’s just a comforting delusion…In science, being completely and utterly stuck can be a good thing; it often means a revolution is coming.”

The scientific mysteries covered range from ones I already knew something about, such as dark matter and free will, to ones I hadn’t heard of, or didn’t know were mysteries – a freaky giant virus that redefined what we consider to be “alive”, or the Pioneer anomaly.

What the chapters actually contain is also very varied. Some are very linear, following the story of one fairly specific topic from start to controversy to present, such as cold fusion (which is one of those things I’d heard of but didn’t realise had some basis in reality). Others are much wider ranging, taking massive topics – life, death and sex – and explaining in what way they are scientific mysteries. For instance, is life just the result of chemical reactions? The very simplest forms of life may be no more than that, but complex life has so far defied chemical explanation.

“Why do living things die? Obviously, things kill each other – that’s part of the natural order. But what causes ‘natural’ death? It is a question that splits biologists. It has become like a game of ping-pong; over the years, theories have been batted back and forth [but] none of the theories fit all of the available evidence.”

One other tack that Brooks takes is to start with a relatively small scientific anomaly that gives food for big discussion. For instance, the Wow! signal leads to explaining the SETI project and from there the prospects for alien life. Actually that’s one chapter I found a bit disappointing, perhaps because I don’t think I learned anything new from it.

But my main reservation is how often Brooks takes the side of the “underdog”, defending many scientific topics – and indeed scientists – that have been widely maligned. While I accept that it’s good journalism – and more interesting for the reader – to present both sides of the story, I can’t help thinking there’s probably good reason these are considered fringe topics. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – the last chapter does after all deal with homeopathy and it felt a little like the author was having to try way too hard to find justification for including it in the book.

I’ll continue with the challenge but I think perhaps I’d like a science book with a storyline next. Perhaps A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: the Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher by Joel Achenbach.

Published 2009 by Doubleday/Profile Books.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

No-one should be embarrassed about getting sick in space

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in Space
by Mary Roach

This was my first read for the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge. It was perhaps a bit of an easy choice to begin with, as I knew Roach’s reputation for humour and I’m already familiar with the subject. But it was still a good, enjoyable read.

Roach’s premise is to look at the nitty gritty detail of what would be involved in sending humans to Mars. But this isn’t about rockets and propulsion systems, this is about the human side – how will people cope with a year or more stuck in a rocket? She looks at this biologically, psychologically, but also at the practical side of things – food, facilities and so on.

“As a gross overgeneralization, the Japanese are well suited to life on a space station. They’re accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy. They’re a lighter, more compact payload than the average American. Perhaps most important, they’re raised to be polite and to keep their emotions in check.”

Roach has spoken to almost everyone who can contribute to this conversation – experts from NASA, the European, Russian, Canadian and other space agencies, university researchers, astronauts – and she really has a gift for picking out the curious details, the facts that make you laugh and learn. She also clearly has a fondness for asking the awkward questions, the things most people don’t discuss, so there’s a chapter each on sex in space, vomit and human waste.

“No-one, not Jake Garn or Rusty Schweickart or Frank Vomiting [Borman], should be embarrassed about getting sick in space. Some 50–75 per cent of astronauts have suffered symptoms of space motion sickness. ‘That’s why you don’t see much shuttle news footage the first day or two. They’re all, like, throwing up in a corner somewhere,’ says Mike Zolensky [NASA curator].”

It’s a genuinely interesting book on a topic that has been extensively researched despite it not being definite that it will ever happen. Roach manages to show great respect for astronauts and scientists while at the same time probing for very intimate facts. She shows a sense of humour about her own curiosity as well as the facts she discovers. But she is also tenacious when she wants to be, doggedly pursuing the truth behind various intriguing rumours.

“It is hard to imagine anyone going through the significant risk and hassle of catheterizing a chimpanzee just to keep him from playing with himself during training sessions. As for the balloon catheter, it was patented in 1963 – two years after Enos’s flight – as a tool to remove blood clots, not to discourage chimpanzee masturbation…Enos, your name is cleared.”

I think what holds me back from outright loving this book is that it didn’t stick closely enough to its premise. Particularly in the second half of the book, it felt more like a book about historical and current humans in space, with some chapters not even mentioning how experience to date in the topic at hand might be extrapolated to a manned Mars mission. And that would have been fine without the title and opening chapters concentrating on the Mars idea. Obviously some historical stuff is necessary, and it’s all extremely interesting, but it isn’t quite the book it sets out to be.

My one other quibble is that early on Roach refers to “US astronaut Helen Sherman”. Oh no no no. Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space. She wasn’t even trained in the US; she trained in Russia with the cosmonauts she flew with to Mir space station. So that’s two errors in one sentence. And I’m by no means an expert in any of this stuff, so how do I know that the rest of the book isn’t riddled with errors? (Obviously these might well be typesetting errors rather than Roach’s own, but it’s still a bit shoddy.)

But those fairly minor gripes aside, this was a very entertaining and informative book.

Published 2010 by Oneworld.

Source: Borrowed from work.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2014 Popular Science Reading Challenge.

The 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

2014-pop-sci-reading-challengeAs I briefly mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have set myself the goal of reading more popular science in 2014. It’s a genre I have enjoyed on the very few occasions I have dipped into it, so I’m not really sure what has been holding me back. To spur me on, I thought I’d make into a challenge, so here we go.

I think the aim will be to read one popular-science book per month (though I’ll still count it as a success if I manage to read 10 in a year). I’ve put together a list of titles recommended to me by people I trust (below), but this is just a starting point (and also a much longer list than I’ll get through in a year). Any popular science (including biographies or other forms of science history) will count.

I’ll create a page to keep track of how I’m doing in this challenge shortly. Does anyone fancy joining me? If so, feel free to use the button I have created (with huge thanks to Doublecompile for making the line drawing available through Creative Commons) and let me know how you get on!

Without further ado, here’s the list I’ll be starting from:

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: the Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher by Joel Achenbach
The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Why Does e=mc2? by Brian Cox
Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich
Measure of the Earth: the Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped the World by Laurie Ferreiro
How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser
The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Stiff by Mary Roach
Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford
The Double Helix by James Watson

I’ll add to this list any further recommendations that take my fancy. So who’s with me?

Sunday Salon: Reading plans for 2014

The Sunday Salon

It’s probably foolish to make any 2014 reading plans, considering I’ve not been great at the challenges I set myself this year and work is only getting busier. And yet, I keep having ideas for my 2014 reading that really excite me, so I thought I’d share them with you.

First, what did I set myself to do in 2013 and how, with five weeks of the year left, am I doing against those goals?

Well, this year I signed up to two challenges and a read-a-long, plus I set myself a challenge. The read-a-long of Crime and Punishment was run by Wallace of Unputdownables and was a great success. I (and many others) managed to get through a book I had previously given up on and I’m really glad that I did persevere. The 2013 Translation Challenge is run by Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm with the goal to read one translated book per month. I’ve actually not achieved that every month, but on the other hand in several months I’ve read more than one translated book. I think translated fiction has become a bigger part of what I read and I hope to continue that without needing a specific challenge.

The 2013 TBR Pile Challenge is run by Roof Beam Reader and it’s probably the goal I needed the most. I have so many books that have sat on my shelves unread for years. I have read eight and a half of the 14 I listed for myself, plus I tried and discarded one. I could have done better and I probably need to have a think about what’s putting me off picking up those books. Certainly it hasn’t helped reduce the size of my TBR, which is almost exactly the same number of books now as at the start of the year. I just love books too much to not buy new ones! But my biggest failure by far is the challenge I set myself – the Cookery Challenge. I said I would make more use of my many cookbooks and blog about them one by one. So far I have blogged about just two of my cookbooks. It’s a poor show.

So that’s 2013 so far. But what are these grand ideas I’ve had for 2014? Well, there are three and if anyone is running a challenge related to any of these I’d be interested to see it, so let me know!


Science fiction
As a teenager I read some classic science fiction along with everything else I could get my hands on to read. But as an adult I haven’t read that much of it. I tried a few years back to get better at this, with some guidance from Tim, whose reading is about 90% SF. But this year I notice I have been especially bad at including any SF in the mix, so I’m going to make it a specific goal for 2014. But what form should that goal take? One random SF book per month? Read my way through the Gollancz SF Masterworks series à la Gavin back in his Gav Reads days? I’d quite like to find some good SF by women, so if anyone has any suggestions I’m all ears.

Popular science
I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, but I do like a good essay and I like to learn things. As an English graduate who works with mostly science graduates, I am finding that the scientists tend to be open to and enjoy the arts but a lot of my arts friends shy away from science. There’s a lot of fear of science as something hard or “other”. I think science is fascinating and an important part of understanding the world around us and I’d like to know more, hence this goal. I asked a few people for recommendations of really good popular-science books and the plan is to create a list and read my way through it. I’ll publish the list in December and am open to further ideas on this.


I own thousands of books, the majority of which I have read and kept because I thought I’d like to read them again some day. But since university I have done very little re-reading and what little I have done has largely been provoked by book clubs choosing something I’d previously read, rather than my own overwhelming urge. Partly this is because I am aware of just how many great books are out there, more than I will ever be able to get to. And partly it’s a fear that a book I loved first time round won’t seem so great on a re-read. But there are so many books I have put down thinking how I would get even more from it on a second read. And so many I read 10 years ago that I have mostly forgotten but know I loved. I think it’s about time I stopped being scared and made time to re-read, even if it’s just four or five books per year. I’m not sure if this should be a challenge per se or just something to keep in the back of my mind.

Have you starting thinking about goals for 2014 yet, reading or otherwise? Do you like to be involved in lots of challenges and projects?