Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work by Kat Arney

I have known of Dr. Kat Arney for a long time. My parents have been friends with her aunt and uncle for as long as I can remember. When I moved to London to work on my master’s degree, I was put in touch with Kat and her sister, Helen. Both sisters are very British (a good thing), very nerdy (also a good thing), and work in science communication. **I also highly recommend looking into Helen’s work with Festival of the Spoken Nerd**

In my time in London, I was fortunate enough to meet Helen and see FOTSN perform. However, Kat was very busy at her job with Cancer Research UK and, as it turns out, writing her book, “Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work”, which was published in 2016.

kat arney book 1

I’ve had this book on my reading list for a while, but only recently picked it up. My background is definitely not in genetics, but recent classes have educated me significantly and renewed my interest in the field. I am still not an expert in the field, but I believe I know enough to recommend this book as both a scientist and bookworm.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats reads like an understated scientific discourse, surely reflecting Dr. Arney’s time as a doctoral student at Cambridge University. Kat beautifully weaves principles of genetics/epigenetics and her conversations with the researchers who discovered these principles.

As a scientist, I loved Kat’s writing style because it felt like I was eavesdropping on a couple people talking science. I find conversations about science to be fascinating, invigorating, inspiring, and educational, even if you don’t understand everything that is discussed.

Kat is honest about disagreements in the field and presents researchers’ opposing viewpoints where relevant. I also love that she featured the voices of researchers both widely known and those that may be less well-known, but still worth finding out about. The tone of the entire book is conversational and welcoming while still diving into some of the gritty details of our genome.

Overall, the book does a good job of presenting complex genetic concepts with simplified analogies to make impossible small phenomena easier to visualize. I occasionally got lost in the volume of information the book was presenting, making it slightly difficult to keep focus, but those sections were few and far between.

In my opinion, this book will be best received by individuals with some scientific background or interest. Having a university-level education in biology certainly helped me understand 99% of the presented discussions and concepts.

Though it has nothing to do with the quality of this book or the science, this book reads like it is for a British audience. This completely makes sense, as Dr. Arney is British and has been writing for a British audience for over a decade now. Her British colloquialisms made me chuckle and feel like I was back in London, if only for a moment.

Kat published her second book last year, which is already on my “to read” list, and I’m excited to see what she can teach me next.

Inherent Creativity in Science & Tech

I recently finished reading another book recommended by a career/professional development specialist. This one, titled “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel H. Pink, presents evidence of why “left-brained” jobs are becoming obsolete (in the U.S.A.) and recommends skills that can be developed for individuals in those careers to become more “right-brained”.

While “left-brained” and “right-brained” are not physiologically accurate (pretty much everything we do requires both hemispheres of our brain), the author uses these terms to describe the amount of creativity required to do that job. Examples of left-brained jobs given include lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. While I cannot speak to the day-to-day activities of lawyers or accountants, as I have no experience with those professions, I can speak a fair bit to the skills required to be a software engineer/programmer.

My Bachelor’s degree is in Biomedical Engineering, which required me to take courses in Java & MATLAB programming. The book’s author on a couple occasions also categorized science as a left-brained field. Based on my experiences in the science and tech, I fundamentally disagree with Pink’s assertion that people in scientific and technical fields lack creativity.

I hope that Pink’s beliefs that science and tech don’t inherently require creativity is due to an insufficient understanding, rather than willful ignorance, or what those fields entail. Generally speaking, scientists and programmers are presented with a problem and tasked with discovering or creating a solution. In the case of science, unsolved problems include climate change, limited natural resources, everything we don’t yet know about the human brain, and countless others. In software programming, unsolved problems may include incorporating a new feature into a larger existing software package or creating the next big social media app.

**I apologize that the relative significance of the example problems given for science and tech are starkly contrasting, but I am not personally familiar with the big-picture questions programmers are trying to answer. Feel free to educate me in them.**

Ultimately, the solutions to all of these problems will require creativity to both think up and design experiments to test the solutions. In science, we use experiments to answer small parts of a larger question. It requires creativity and intelligence to think of the fastest and most accurate ways to answer our question given a limited number of resources (e.g. money, time, personnel, equipment, etc.). In programming, they use different coding languages and progressive logic to come up with solutions to their problems.

Two different programmers given the same problem are highly unlikely to write the exact same code as a solution. Both will be able to understand what happens in each line of code and how that contributes to the outputted solution, just as scientists understand how each experiment answers a small part of the larger question.

I would also like to note that especially good experimental designs and software code are commonly described using the same terminology as is used for art and music: elegant, cohesive, balanced, creative, complementary, imaginative, etc. This is not a coincidence.

I found reading Daniel Pink’s superficial assessment of science and tech to be especially frustrating because, while the book is not new (it was first published in 2005), I’m sure that many people outside these fields hold the same misunderstandings of what kinds of people do well in science and tech. I want creatively-minded free-thinkers to know that they have a place in science and tech, and are very likely to thrive here. Even more so, if they don’t already, I want scientists and programmers to recognize and celebrate how creative they really are.

Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner

Based on the recommendation from one of my professors, I recently finished this wonderful book by Jonathan Weiner. “Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior” beautifully walks the line between scientific and journalistic writing. It is the rare breed of book which is very well written and easy to understand, without losing the integrity of its scientific discussions.

Time, Love, Memory Book

“Time, Love, Memory” presents the stories of a series of scientists, centered around Dr. Seymour Benzer, who used fruit flies (Drosophila Melanogaster) to decipher genes which help to program flies’ internal clocks, sexual preferences, personalities, and appearances. Over many decades, Dr. Benzer and his colleagues pioneered the field of molecular biology, discovering dozens of genes in Drosophila with human homologues (equivalences, though not necessarily for the same function).

Drosophila were an ideal animal model to perfom these scientific experiments and make these discoveries as they are genetically [relatively] uncomplicated, small, proliferative (they reproduce quickly), and each to take care of/maintain. The techniques Dr. Benzel designed to start to unlock their genetic codes are still considered to be mind-boggling in their elegance and simplicity. Reader of “Time, Love, Memory” should also respect how much patience, perserverance, and dedication it took Dr. Benzer and his colleagues to make these discoveries.

I especially love how the author discusses the interpersonal relationships of the scientists. It is rare that non-fiction science literature put so much emphasis on humanizing the scientists without detracting from the significance of the science. I wish more writing on scientific discoveries put that kind of effort into painting the faces behind the science.

This is the style of scientific writing that I envy and I sincerely hope to one day be able to write about my own research in such a widely comprehensible manner.

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane, PhD

My background is predominantly in engineering fields, so I have spent much of time since starting my PhD learning about basic biology and biochemistry. These subject areas have previously frustrated me because they require a lot of time and effort in order to memorize seemingly endless genes, proteins, signals, cycles, and pathways. Therefore, I appreciate faculty/professors who are able to make their research in these subject areas sound exciting. These skilled faculty are far more likely to hold my attention and get me interested in their research.

One such faculty in my PhD program studies mitochondrial biology and recommended “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life” by Dr. Nick Lane to anyone interested in learning more about the powerhouses of the cell.

Power Sex Suicide

I am not a huge reader of mass-published non-fiction science books, mainly because I spend large amounts of my time at work reading scientific literature and I don’t like the idea of spending my free time doing the same thing. This book was an exception to that because a large part of my PhD project is studying mitochondrial bioenergetics and I knew I needed to learn more about these organelles.

“Power, Sex, Suicide” effectively walks the reader through the evolutionary origins of mitochondria, the functions they have in the cell, and how they could be the keys to everlasting life. After reading this book, I have a much better appreciation and understanding for how these tiny structures are more than just the powerhouses of the cell. However, I think that the author spends too much time referencing the names and institutional affiliations of every researcher who tested, theorized, or asserted something discussed in the book.

While I understand the purpose of giving due credit to the valuable effort and countless hours spent discovering everything that we know about mitochondria, I think it distracts the reader’s attention from the more relevant/interesting information on mitochondria. I am never going to remember who, in what year, at which institution first came up with the idea that mitochondria originally came from bacteria. The author’s constant need to cite all researchers involved causes this book to take far longer to finish reading than [what I think] is preferred by the average reader.

I respect the vast amounts of knowledge and expertise that Dr. Lane assembled within this book, but I think he could have reached a much wider audience if he had focused on the science and less on the people.

With that said, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the complete research history of everything we know (up to 2005) about mitochondria. Having some background in science, I think, helps with fully understanding everything discussed, but Dr. Lane does a commendable job making the subject matter comprehensible for all.