In Search Of The Double Helix: Quantum Physics And Life by John Gribbon (book review).

Another science book I picked up is ‘In Search Of The Double Helix: Quantum Physics And Life’ by John Gribbon. Basically, the content is actually a look at evolution, DNA and a touch, well, a large touch of quantum mechanics and how they connect together.

I wish I had this book when I was at college because it clearly explains a lot of thing I was supposed to be taught. I never joined the dots that the word ‘chromosomes’ was derived from the colour stain used to identify them. I’m getting strongly aware of how scientific names are derived these days but this one is so basic that it didn’t dawn on me.

As much as I follow the growth of mutation in each generation runs at 0.8% and spreads across a species if successful, I still contend it needs to be more than one individual with the mutation to be successful or it could be stopped if the individual becomes a meal for another species. That leaves two options: The mutation is happening all the time, just waiting for when it can be successful like the peppered moth or the change is going to happen reacting to environment or both. The dinosaurs showed this by filling every niche short of intellect similar to ourselves.

The genetic opening three chapters ends on a look at Barbara McClintock who chose to study cross-breeding maize because it was easier to observe change than the colour of fly eyes. As it was rare for a woman scientist to get awards back in the early 20th century, she only got her Nobel Prize retrospectively in 1983, confirming that cross-breeding could lead to new species in plant-life as Gregor Mendel had done with pea strains.

The next section moves onto the basics of chemistry before a sharp reminder that genetics only really got started in 1910 and then jumped up further in the 1950s. There’s also a reminder of the split screen experiment and how a photon changes into a wave and appears in two places at the same time beyond the slit. If ever there is a reminder of sub-atomic particles can show wave/particulate properties at our level, the photon is the best example.

To understand organic chemistry, there is a need to understand how atoms bond in different ways and how electrons are shared in the process. Basic chemistry and it’s a good update for those of us who’ve forgotten some of this over the years  and certainly knowledge for those who’ve yet to encounter it.

Don’t under-estimate this book because if you need a grasp of how genetic material works then you’ll also have some idea of what you can apply if you’re using genetically engineered creations in your own stories. Not that I can see you explaining it to your readers but just to avoid any pitfalls. It was also a learning curve for me that chromosomes can be disrupted and then relink much the same way. Also be aware that no matter how long the strands, you are only made up of an active 2%.

Seeing the work of Watson and Crick and their work on DNA and having access to other people working on is made for a fascinating read and, as Gribbin points out, were not exactly nice people, especially in regards to Rosalind Franklin, who surely would have had a share in the Nobel Prize had she not died prematurely from cancer. Certainly, there needs to be some updating today regarding that if for no other reason than the acknowledgement of these people’s work. Some film producer really needs to read this chapter and think this would make an interesting production.

I’m sure those of you who can remember your basic biology that your DNA is made up of 4 amino acids. Applying factorial 4, that’s 4*3*2*1 = 24, doesn’t represent all the varieties we have. Gribbon points out one of the amino acids is used as an end code, so we are only talking 3 amino acids. However, when you put them in a variety of combinations of threes, the numbers really expand. If you don’t learn anything else from this book, this really does sink in.

Something I should point out is that Gribbon had some say in page management. The diagram placement corresponds to the text, so you don’t have to work out which way to read things, and although it leaves the odd quarter page blank it balances out. Equally, the footnotes are on the same page and, as it used to be, if the superscript number is near the end of the page and the footnote too long, that continues on the next page. Lessons here for all textbooks writers and publishers in knowledge management.

A lot of the information in this book I was familiar with a long while back. Reading it again here brings it back into context. About the only thing Gribbon doesn’t take into account are the other sub-species of man like the Neanderthals and Denisovans and I would have liked to have seen his opinions on when we divulged from them as much as the great apes. Then again, you do have to wonder has mankind stopped evolving but, then, that would be stepping into our genre. Read and learn.

GF Willmetts

March 2023

(pub: Reanimus Press, 2015. 292 page enlarged paperback. Price:  ISBN: 978-1-51192771-0)

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