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Montgomery, who at this point in her career still thinks the plural of octopus is octopi, dips her arm into Athena’s tank and spends a few minutes letting the octopus wrap her tentacles around her arm until an employee gently removes her.
Her chosen topic is the science of keeping soldiers safe and healthy.Like a quirky tour guide in a gallery he leads us around the cranium explaining the brain’s biological mechanisms, pondering the differences between the “brain” and “mind” and discussing questions about reality and consciousness that make the reader suffer from spells of existential doubt – well, we did, at least.Another of the book’s core attractions is its wealth of mini-facts.Rutherford, a writer and geneticist who has written previously on the subject, weaves from our genes a fascinating tapestry of human history from its most primitive origins to its sophisticated present, and beyond.True to its title, Rutherford’s overview of genetics is brief: at 300 pages it is considerably shorter than Mukherjee’s, meaning that if you’re after just a quick though comprehensive survey of genetics, this is the book for you.One of the first things that Garfield stresses to the reader is that he is not attempting a chronicle and examination of time itself à la Hawking, but instead a history of how we came to record and (as the subtitle suggests) grow obsessed with time.
The crux of Garfield’s argument is that, perhaps more than any period in our history, we are obsessed with time, and it isn’t a benign obsession: according to Garfield our modern fondness for productivity and disdain for idleness is making us hyperconscious of time’s passage and constantly anxious that we are wasting what little time we have.
Perhaps more than any author on this list, Levin is a master of storytelling: the programme’s origins, its purpose, its eccentric architects and its wider significance for humanity all feature in this book as themes, converging to form a novel-like narrative that keeps the reader hooked in awe page after page.
Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician, researcher, biologist, geneticist, oncologist, a few more -ists, and, importantly for us, an excellent writer.
He places the gene in a triumvirate of scientific ideas that dominated the twentieth century, alongside the atom and the byte.
Mukherjee’s immense knowledge of genetics and formidable fluency in prose shows that there are few people more suited to tackling a subject as complicated, delicate and indeed dangerous – the pseudoscience of genetics and race has often led to catastrophe – as that of the gene. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford: £20, Weidenfeld & Nicolson One of the most extraordinary things about this book is its sheer breadth.
It is one of those rare books that you’ll finish thinking you haven’t wasted a single second. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: £8.99, Vintage Paul Kalanithi – a neurosurgeon by profession and philosopher by temperament – died of lung cancer in 2015 at the age of thirty-seven.