Book Review: Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn

ExHeart_f Experimental Heart by Jennifer L. Rohn
Cold Spring Harbor Press, 2009

Experimental Heart is a novel in two parts: the first is an account of the biologists in a leading institute in London, and the research they do; the second is a plot-driven story. In chapter 1, Andy O’Hara, a postdoctoral researcher, is working late one night in the lab. This is normal for him; his life consists of 13-18-hour days at work, seven days a week, a vending-machine diet, odd hours in the pub, and snatched hours of sleep inbetween. He’s a loner, despite being an attractive man who the other female characters in the novel either have fallen for in the past or would like to in future. The reason for his driven, somewhat arrogant and solitary nature lies, we are led to understand, in his family background. His father was himself a scientist who died in his 40s of a malignant melanoma, and Andy has chosen a similar career in response, keeping an old photo of his father in his desk drawer as an inspiration.

Andy is interested in Gina, whom he can watch through his window as she works in her own late-night laboratory routine. Unlike Andy, Gina works in the commercial sector, seeking practical medical applications of the research she does. Andy spends quite a bit of time trying to pluck up courage to strike up a friendship (and perhaps more) with her, though is constantly foiled by work and the fact that Gina always seems to be monopolised by other people. While Andy muses on Gina and struggles with his feelings about other female characters, we are told an enormous amount of detail about the experiments that he and his colleagues perform and the possible biological implications; about the working and drinking life of young, childless scientists; and about the publications, seminars and conferences that form the background to their tense occupations. The author is very much on a mission to show the reader what it’s like to be a scientist in a highly competitive environment where there aren’t enough jobs for everyone and where you are in an invisible race to be the first to publish your results.  

Because scientific research is such a specialist and intellectual occupation, the characters have a camaraderie (even when they irritate each other) and a sense of “separateness” from the rest of society; the author is excellent at conveying this rather superior alienation. In the background to this story is a group of animal rights activists who are both frighteningly violent and rather well-informed about the research going on at the institute. These activists, as well as several parties attended by the characters where there are some convenient “non scientist” flatmates or guests, provide a platform for us to be told the various ideological positions about genetically modified crops, research on living organisms,  and other dangers or benefits of contemporary biology research.

All this is fascinating if you are interested in what makes a small group of scientists tick and in following the ins and outs of their research. It might be a little hard-going if you aren’t. In the second half, however, the author drops much of the explanatory tone and instead gets stuck into a tense story in which Andy and his colleagues realise that Gina may be being dragged into a project that is not only highly unethical but extremely dangerous.  This part of the novel is very clever, and the tension the author wrings out of measuring radioactivity or running a gel is truly nail-biting!

For me, the strengths of the book are in the way it explains rather technical and complex scientific concepts in an accessible manner, and the scientific detective story of the second half – not a story in which it is a challenge to work out what is going on and who is responsible, but exciting in the thriller sense. On the other hand,  I did not find the half-dozen or so characters that interesting, so could not care that much about their romantic ups and downs, though I was certainly rooting for Andy and Gina at the end. 

This novel is steeped in a passion for biological research. Just as many books have appeal because of their beautifully conveyed sense of a particular geographical place, science is the country of Experimental Heart, and it is one that this author conveys authentically and lovingly. It is scientific research that is the hero or heroine of this enjoyable novel.

Jennifer L. Rohn
, the author, is a cell biologist and founder of LabLit, a wonderful website that promotes and celebrates science in culture and fiction. Find out more about her at her website. A selection of reviews of Experimental Heart is also available at the author’s website.

I purchased my copy of this novel, in the form of a Kindle edition. It's available also in print form from Amazon and from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Exclusive insider secrets of a baguette

A bird dropping a piece of bread onto outdoor machinery has been blamed for a technical fault at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) earlier this week, as reported in The Register. If the LHC had been operational, the machine would have automatically shut down for a couple of days. However, the LHC is still being worked on after the electrical failure and subsequent leak of liquid helium that caused such damage in September, so was not active when the baguette (as it turned out to be) fell into it.

Even so, intrepid Nature reporter Geoff Brumfiel obtained an exclusive interview, under strict conditions of anonymity, with a member of staff at CERN about the errant baguette. From the Q/A:

Can we say anything about the contents of the baguette? Did it contain any tasty filling? If so what type?
Looks to have been a plain baguette – no filling observed. It was very soggy when found.

Is there any indication whether this is a French or a Swiss baguette?
It was a French site – But a frontier crossing bird is not ruled out.

Has anyone considered the possibility that the baguette came from the future to sabotage the LHC? Is there any indication that this is a futuristic baguette?
The possibility has been examined by theoretical physicists – considered unlikely as they feel baguettes will not play a part in future cultures.

Read on at The Great Beyond (the Nature news blog).

End of the line for science journalism?

Although I say it myself, there are some really stimulating, readable and fascinating articles in Nature this week (25 June issue) about science, journalism and communication with the lay public. Most of this post is taken from a Nature Network forum post: you're welcome to join in the discussion there.

Many researchers see science journalists as a public-relations service or as an ally in spreading the news about their work, asserts a Nature Editorial this week (459, 1033; 2009 – free to read online). The Editorial points out that there is a deeper value of journalism: to cast a fair but sceptical eye over everything in the public sphere — science included. This kind of scrutiny is easy for researchers to applaud when a news report questions dodgy statistics or dubious claims about uncertainties in evolution. It is not so easy when the story takes a critical look at animal-research practices, overblown claims about climate change or scientists’ conflicts of interest. But such examinations are to the benefit of society, which needs to see science scrutinized as well as regurgitated, and journalists are an essential part of that process.
This week’s Nature special issue, of which the Editorial is a part, shines a spotlight on the profession in changing, troubled times, and is published to mark the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists from 30 June to 2 July 2009 in London.
Scientists can do little to stem the current bloodletting, in which readers and advertisers are deserting publications that are downsizing or folding at fast pace. But, argues the Editorial, they can make worthwhile attempts to ensure that questioning and informed science journalism persists in whatever new forms might emerge from the carnage. If the future of the media truly is a dire landscape of top-100 lists, shouting heads and minimal attention span, then such efforts might at least defer the grim end. A good start would be to have a look at the advice for academics speaking to journalists provided by Brad Delong and Susan Rasky. And from the other side of the coin, the Washington Post‘s national environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin and its executive editor Marcus Brauchli discuss the future of science coverage in their newspaper in a Nature Books&Arts Q&A.
But do newspapers even matter? Blogs and microblogging services like Twitter are opening up conferences to those not actually there – how is this direct to web exposure affecting science journalism, and indeed scientists themselves and their options for peer-review and publication of their research? A range of angles on these questions are covered in a Nature News feature, including the story of a recent ’blogostorm’ about a Cold Spring Harbor meeting in which scientists seemed free to report what journalists could not.
In other articles in this week’s Nature, Toby Murcott in Toppling the priesthood argues that the process of science needs to be opened up to journalists; Boyce Rensberger (Too close for comfort) tracks the progression of scientific correspondent from cheerleader to watchdog; and Nadia El-Awady in The Arab boom suggests much room for improvement in local journalism in Arab countries. The bottom line? To what extent should scientists help — or care?
(All the Nature articles mentioned and linked here are part of the science journalism special in the issue of 25 June 2009. The three Essays and the Books&Arts article are free to read online for 2 weeks from the publication date.)

Twittering the Apollo 11 Moon mission, 40 years on

Nature News twitters the Apollo 11 moon mission as it happened — 40 years on. Follow them at ApolloPlus40 ; location, the Moon.

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic 
Via twitpic.

Two hours ago: #Apollo 11 passes 9-hr flight readiness review: 16 July launch date approved.

Robert left a comment to my "puzzled of Twitter" post the other day recommending a service called Thwirl, which I've duly downloaded. It seems to do for Twitter what the Friend Feed notifier does for Friend Feed and other similar pop-up notifiers do for their services (eg the dreaded email notifier which I have turned off). This pop-up route is apparently "the" way to use Twitter, not RSS (I have probably been told this before by other helpful people but only just got round to focusing on this pressing issue). Once Thwirl was installed (very easy, but requires Adobe AIR, as does the Friend Feed notifier) I immediately found out that the Apollo 11 programme had started (40 years on) so I can tell you about it – and I have also found, via Andreas (whose Twitter name is, I think, @Trabesinger – follow him if you want to know lots of things about physics and probably motor racing – he is very nice), 18 beautiful rainbows from around the world. I would certainly have missed seeing those without this Thwirly thing, so I'm grateful for that.

By the way, Thwirl also lets you include other services, including Friend Feed – I think I might find that level of integration just too confusing, though, because the only people who are allowed to appear on my FF notifier are the crime-fiction room members – so if I see a FF pop-up I know it is crime-fiction related (or OT!). And I imagine that everyone else I know on Friend Feed is also on Twitter so they will all be Thwirled, now.

While I've been writing this post, the Apollo 11 programme staff have been busy, popping up regularly with updates about their preparations for launch. It's so exciting, reminding me vividly of the tension, massive public interest, and sense of awe at the sheer scale of the ambition back in the "olden days". Then, I cut out pictures and articles from the Times's coverage (they ran various special supplements) and stuck them up on my bedroom wall. I had to visit a friend's house to watch the news on the day it happened because we didn't have a TV — waiting to see the film of the landing on that day was unbearable! How times have changed in terms of instant, constant, pictorial news reporting. (And my bedroom wall isn't the same either, believe it or not - but although this year it features a calendar of scenes of Yosemite national park, next year I just might go for planets and satellites.)

Scientific terminology

Via Dara Sosulski, highlighting a sentence from a scientific paper she was reading, “The ping-pong cycle acts independently of Piwi and Armitage but requires the function of Aubergine, the RNA helicases Spindle-E and Vasa, and the Tudor-domain protein Krimper.”

I, Editor, on the other hand, muses on the origins of the term "missing link", blacklisted from all reputable scientific discourse. All ancient suggestions welcome at the I, Editor post.

rENNISance woman asks: please define "other". Ye gods! Words fail me. (But do read the comments to her post.)

The science of stealing

Each week, Nature features a double-page spread of Research Highlights, the editors' choices of what is striking across the range of the scientific literature (in their view) that week. Today's issue contains a gem, summarising a paper from the journal  Behavioural Psychiatry with the title: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study of the Opiate Antagonist, Naltrexone, in the Treatment of Kleptomania, by Jon Grant et al.. The title of Nature's Research Highlight summary is the more digestible: The Thief Within.

The authors of the study write: "Kleptomania is a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by recurrent stealing and for which there exists no empirically validated treatments. This study examined the efficacy and tolerability of the opioid antagonist naltrexone in adults with kleptomania who have urges to steal." According to the paper, within 8 weeks, the 11 volunteers, who "ordinarily steal at least once a week" receiving the drug reported a significant reduction in their compulsion to steal compared with the placebo group. These preliminary results are said to support a link between the symptoms of kleptomania and the body's opioid system.

Nature Network blogger Raf Aert's take? "Researchers later recovered two laptops, five wallets and a ham sandwich from the control group."

Why science is important

Alom Shaha teaches at an inner-city comprehensive school where science (physics, chemistry and biology, as well as maths), as in all UK schools, is compulsory for all students up to the age of 16. As well as trying to explain to his students electrical circuits or Newton’s Laws, he tries "to convey to them that science is important, that it’s something worth doing for reasons beyond the need to pass exams".

Hence his film and blog project “why is science important?”, accounts by people who feel the importance of science so deeply that they have dedicated their lives to it — working scientists, science writers and science teachers. The goal is to make it far, far easier for a teacher to answer the question "what's the point of all this?". The blog/website is a collection of videos, interviews and articles from leading scientists, public figures, and everyone. Take a look at some of the excellent entries, the complete film, and do leave your own comments.

Some contributors:

Marcus Chown, astrophysicist, writer and journalist.

Robin Weiss, professor of viral oncology.

Rosie Coates, PhD student in chemistry.

Alom Shaha, science education and communication.

Candid Engineer’s Scientiae carnival

"Tell us about that most firey fire through which you have had to walk in your scientific career. How did you overcome the challenge? Did you have help along the way, or was it a solo effort? And what did you learn? Why are you a better scientist given the difficulties that you have encountered?" These are the questions asked in this month's Scientiae carnival hosted by the Candid Engineer, who reports an "overwhelming response of varied tales of challenge and triumph".

Curious Computer, for example writes about how she's come to realise she is scared of writing, so is going to write two blog posts a week (on a blog she created for the purpose) until she's submitted her PhD. There is also some interesting material at her blog about overcoming a fear of needles and what growing up with boys taught her about bravado vs confidence.

Microbiologist writes about clinging on to feelings of being miserable and how hard it is to recognize and change one's behaviour; The Happy Scientist features a post on the toughest part of grad school; and Miss Outlier writes about what it is like to stop working independently and to have to work with other people, some of whom are stupid, and many of whom, stupid or not, indulge in politics.

I very much enjoyed reading the posts in this carnival, experiencing the energy and drive of the writers, even though it isn't always easy for them, or anyone.

Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging to celebrate women in technology. Lots more details are available here. I also encourage you to check out today's guest blog post at the UKRC's GetSETWomen blog, which is by Honora Smith, great-great-great niece of Ada.

I've always had an interest in the history of computing, the field to which Ada Lovelace made such a significant contribution, as my parents met while my father was an electrical engineer and my mother an operator on the Mark 1 computer in Manchester back in the 1950s, and they both spent the rest of their working lives in the computing profession.

Back in those days, people who wanted to use the power of computers for their various projects had to learn programming languages such as usercode, Algol, Fortran, Basic and so on. These days, many of us can be "high-level" users, i.e. we don't have to learn the programmes or the technologies to use the tools. I have great admiration for those who do both, so in honour of Ada Lovelace day I will mention a few of those people here – all of whom I have met (most of them in real life) since I started blogging.

Debra Hamel, inventor of many web-technologies involving books and reading, is appropriately interviewed today by Clare Dudman, a distinguished scientific writer and novelist, and keeper of the snails. Debra is perhaps best known for adopting Twitter on day 1 of the service, and developing TwitterLit and its younger relation Kidderlit, daily games which have featured in the mainstream media (The Guardian newspaper, for example). Debra is also founder of one of the earliest book-bloggers' reading festivals, the quarterly Buy a Friend a Book week. Full details at Clare's excellent interview, which reveals others of Debra's talents. Debra runs several blogs, but her "main" one, if that is a fair description, is the Deblog.

Karen Meek, as well as being a librarian professional, created and maintains the Euro Crime website. This wonderful resource is a database of original reviews of European crime fiction (new reviews are added every week), much of it in translation, as well as a complete bibliography of the very many authors writing books in the genre, with links to their websites. Euro Crime also features news, events, a blog and other information about European crime fiction and, occasionally, science fiction (with an accent on Dr Who). As well as being a considerable, and free to use, technical achievement in its own right, Euro Crime brings together those who love the genre, and is a fantastic resource for any potential reader wishing to broaden her or his horizons. 

Steffi Suhr writes a blog called Science Behind the Scenes, about people in science but also very much about those behind the science, who help to make it possible, whether in support roles, in management, publishing or other. The accent is on marine and polar science, so readers truly get a sense of the technologies and efforts involved in doing research – all told with Steffi's good humour and positive outlook. She herself juggles a demanding job as an editor for a German scientific publisher, a challenging family life (her partner is away for long periods of time), running marathons, and her passion for the communication of science. Her blog conveys a wonderful enthusiasm for technology, and her descriptions allow one to understand these sometimes complex subjects almost without realising it. I wish more scientists would write blogs like Steffi's; she is a great example and role model – just check out her blog and scroll down the variety of descriptions, interviews and stories, to see what I mean.

Mouse or hippo?

Sometimes, I just have to smile.


Nature 458, 263 (2009). doi:10.1038/458263e

The Research Highlight 'Pogo-stick pictures' (Nature 458, 11; 2009) described the subject of the accompanying image as a mouse cochlear hair cell. It is in fact a hippocampal neuron.


[PS don't ask me to correct this post title. It is a joke, possibly not a very good one, but a joke.]