Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Language of Life

Debra Niehoff, The Language of Life: How Cells Communicate in Health and Disease

The content is inherently fascinating, which goes a long way toward redeeming a book that suffers from little annoyances. Aimed at a popular audience, it attempts to explain the complex chemical systems that connect cells of all kinds, in all situations. From quorum sensing to morphogenesis, Niehoff covers a wide range of subjects in vivid, lively detail.

What are the annoyances, then? First, minorly, the absence of endnotes. I know it's a populist treatment, so endnotes would clutter up the page, but it would be nice to know exactly which points go with which citations without having to jump to the notes and search for a specific phrase.

But that's trivial. The real grievance is the overabundance of metaphorizing. Sometimes analogy helps us understand or visualize unfamiliar concepts. But analogies are like condiments; you can't keep adding more to the mix and hoping the result will taste better. Niehoff's blend of anthropomorphism and scientific jargon can be jarring, even unintentionally comic.
Contact between a misguided temporal axon and a posterior tectal cell is as toxic as two young children in the back seat of a car. "MOMMM! She touched me!" the axon whines and then retreats to the ephrin-free anterior tectum where its ephrin, or "Eph" receptors can avoid contact with the offending signal. "Ewww, cooties!" retort neurons of the posterior tectum....

A blue and white North American moving van pulls up and begins unloading couches, chairs, tables, beds, boxes of dishes and boxes of books, a cedar play set, three televisions, and a plastic dog house.... The axon that's just completed its journey and the dendrite it has selected as a partner also pull off to the curb fully prepared to begin the task of setting up a new synapse. Before they even trade a handshake, the axon has already begun to assemble vesicles and is putting the final touches on its secretory apparatus....
If you find this thrilling, by all means pick up a copy of The Language of Life. If you don't, but the topic interests you, you've been warned.


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