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Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat Arney

Kat Arney has written a very good Book on genes and gene expression. She covers all the important controversies in a thorough and thoughtful manner.

Kat Arney is a science writer based in the UK. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge where she worked on epigenetics and regulation in mice. She also did postdoc work at Imperial College in London. Her experience in the field of molecular biology and gene expression shows up clearly in her book where she demonstrates the appropriate skepticism and critical thinking in her coverage of the major advances in the field.

Most of the 22 chapters focus on a particular scientist and they are usually accompanied by direct quotes from her interviews with these scientists. The chapter on Mark Ptashne alone is worth the price of the book. With this book Kat Arney establishes herself as a first-class science writer in the style of Carl Zimmer (and others) where the focus is on individual scientists who are doing the research.

Here's an example from Chapter 5 ...

When I arrive at Mark Ptashne's swanky Fifth Avenue apartment block in Manhattan, right next to Central Park, the doorman is apologetic. The entry phone doesn't work properly, so he asks if I can use my phone to call the apartment. I point out that I'm using a UK mobile and it will cost me five dollars. As we work out the best way to contact my interviewee up on the 12th floor, the man tells me, 'I knew as soon as you walked in the door you would be for him.' 'Is it because I look a bit nerdy?' I ask, laughing nervously. I'm not at my best after a humid September morning spent getting lost in the park—hair frizzed up, glasses slipping down my sweaty nose and carrying my trademark geek's backpack. 'No, no—it's because he always has nice visitors! Tell you what, just head up and knock.'

Kat is no pushover when it comes to describing the science. Here's an example from the chapter on epigenetics. It's based on her deep understanding of the subject ... an understanding that's often missing when other science writers talk about epigenetics.
There's a literal fly in the ointment here too: fruit flies only have a teeny, tiny bit of DNA methylation, nematode worms don't really have any either, and yeast has none, as researchers working on these organisms are keen to smugly point out at every opportunity. So whatever DNA methylation is doing, it can't be fundamental to life. So is DNA methylation actually doing anything? Or ... is it just a marker reflecting other changes?
I agree with almost everything Kat Arney says in her book, which is why I highly recommend it! However, there's one place where her skepticism fails her and that's on the subject of alternative splicing. Don't let that dissuade you from ordering her book right now. It's the only way you're going to find out what it has to do with Hemingway's cats.

This post first appeared on Sandwalk, please read the originial post: here

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Herding Hemingway's Cats by Kat Arney


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