Tag Archive: Book Reviews

Feb 14 2011

Book Review: For all the tea in China by Sarah Rose

ForAllTeaChinaBookI’ve been on a bit of a reading spree: next up is “For all the tea in China” by Sarah Rose. This is the story of Robert Fortune and his trips to China in the mid-nineteenth century to obtain tea plants and the secret of tea manufacture for the East India Company to use in India.

Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was a botanist with a modest background. Starting his working life at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, he later became Curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden. These were relatively poorly paid posts, however there were few such positions to support a professional botanist without their own means of support. He made several substantial visits to the Far East, funded by the Horticultural Society of London and the British East India Company. He died a wealthy man in large part through the wide range of plant introductions he had made, as well as through sales of artefacts he had acquired in the Far East. The list of introductions is well worth a skim through for the modern gardener:

The East India Company had been given a monopoly of trade to the Far East in 1600, through this monopoly they had built a lucrative trade in silk and tea from China, as well as effectively running India. The trades from China were matched with trades into China of opium from India, by the middle of the 19th century addiction to opium was a significant problem in China. The volume of trade it brought made the East India Company a very significant contributor to British government income (of order 10%). Although there are now many global corporations, the East India Company was one of the first and in many ways most powerful. The company was ultimately to lose its dominance following the Indian Mutiny in 1858, and was finally wound up in 1874. The mutiny was likely the cumulation of a long process since the monopoly that the East India Company enjoyed was not popular with free-marketeers who were starting to come to the fore.

At the time of Fortune’s first trip to China in 1845 the English had long been drinking tea imported from China, in exchange for opium grown in India. The English drank both green and black teas, although unlike the Chinese they added milk and sugar (obtained from another British colonial outpost). The Chinese were keen to keep the secret of both the tea plant, and its manufacture into tea leaves for making tea. Whilst the British, in particular the East India Company were keen to get these secrets believing (correctly) that tea would grow well in Himalayan India and would make a good profit. Some tea was already being grown in the Assam district of India but is was derived from inferior Chinese plants. The tea plant is Camellia sinensis a close relative of the decorative camellias of which Fortune also introduced some species.

Before Fortune’s first visit to China it had not even been established that black tea and green tea came from the same plant, but were processed differently. His trips required considerable subterfuge: Westerners had only recently been allowed into anywhere other than a limited number of ports in China, as a result of the first Opium War and Fortune’s activities went considerably beyond what was allowed even under these revised regulations. One of Fortune’s discoveries was that green tea had been coloured by the Chinese for the export market using Prussian Blue (which is toxic) and gypsum. Following a couple of false starts he was eventually able to transport a large number of highest quality tea plant seedlings to Darjeeling in India, as well as providing skilled tea makers and extensive notes on the tea making process.

The key to Fortune’s success in shipping out tea plants from China were Wardian cases, these are essentially sealed glass environments containing soil and some water. Plants, or more importantly, troublesome seeds could be sealed into these containers and as long as they remained sealed, and given some light there would be a good chance of their biological cargo surviving a lengthy sea journey through a range of climates. Prior to this discovery long distance transplantations were tricky. Nowadays we see Kew Gardens as largely a place of leisure, but in the 19th century it was very much at the heart of the Empire in terms of facilitating the movement of plants around the world for commercial reasons. This type of activity was also an early interest of the Royal Society.

It’s difficult not to draw parallels between the state sanctioned opium trade which the United Kingdom used to support, and its current attitude to drug smuggling. Nor between the industrial espionage of the East India Company in the 19th century, and the current issues with the Chinese approach to intellectual property.

I found the sections of the book reporting Fortune’s travels a bit unfulfilling: they seemed to be a sequence of travel anecdotes involving the mischief caused by his Chinese servants – this style does affect other parts of the books. However, more generally the book made me curious to know more about the East India Company, the Opium Wars and so forth and I felt I’d learnt something about the introduction of tea to India.

I’m tempted by Fortune’s book: Three years’ wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China 

Feb 10 2011

Book review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

HenriettaLacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an unusual book. It is part cell biology: the story of cell-lines kept alive perpetually in the laboratory; it is part story of Henrietta Lacks and her family from whom the first of these cell-lines (called HeLa) was derived; it is the story of how medical ethics has evolved over the last 60 years and it is part story of the story.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells were taken at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1951 and cultured by George Gey during her treatment for an aggressive cervical cancer from which she subsequently died at the age of thirty-one, later that year. Gey, with the help of Lacks’ cells, was the first person to successfully maintain a cell-line. The cells cultured are cancer cells rather than normal cells. Following his work a wide range of other cell-lines were cultured from a variety of organs and species, however it subsequently turned out that many of these were actually the HeLa cell-line which turned out to be particularly pernicious. Researchers would start with a culture of different cells, but they would die to be replaced by HeLa cell “contaminants”.

Once Gey had started the cell-line he gave them away freely to other researchers, however it was not very long before the HeLa cells were being sold commercially. An early application of the HeLa cell-line was in testing the newly developed Salk vaccine for polio, the first of many, many applications. More dubiously Chester Southam injected the cancerous cells into prisoners, and subsequently into many patients. This was with the view to seeing if they developed within the body, the problem was that the patients were not informed that the cells were cancerous. This practice ended when three young Jewish doctors aware of the Nuremburg Code, proposed as a result of post-war trials of Nazi doctors responsible for horrific human experimentation, refused to take part in the experiments.

To my mind the unique part of the book is the in depth coverage of Henrietta Lacks’ family through to the present day. Rebecca Skloot tells in detail the long persistent trail to talk to them, an African-American family who certainly have good reason to be suspicious of white people asking about Henrietta. The Lacks’ were never a model family but then there is no reason for them so to be. Race and medicine have a poor history in the US. The Tuskagee Syphilis experiments perhaps being the lowest point, in which African-Americans were denied effective treatment for the disease so the full course of its symptoms could be observed. Other racism is less direct, as relatively poor Americans the Lacks family have reduced access to the treatments arising from the cells of their ancestor. If she were a white child, Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s mentally disabled daughter would not have died at the Crownsville State Hospital, certainly not in such terrible circumstances.

In 2011 the cell lines derived from Henrietta Lacks would not have been called HeLa. Possibly her cells would not have been collected at all, requiring full informed consent. Her name would have become known to all including the family. The family would not have learned of the gruesome details of her death at the “hands” of an aggressive cervical cancer via a book whose author had been given Henrietta Lacks medical records.

To my mind the real shortcomings of the scientists were not in what they did in the first instance but how they failed to support the Lacks’ not with money but with information. Until Skloot and Christoph Lengauer showed them and spoke to them, no-one had explained exactly what cells had been taken, what had been done with them, the significance of Henrietta Lacks to science or the specific knowledge of her condition did or did not have to their health in terms which they could understand; giving them a book on cell biology was not enough.

Skloot relates three stories of discoveries arising from a specific persons’ cells: the Lacks story and those of Ted Slavin and John Moore. Slavin was born a haemophiliac and as a result of the blood transfusions that he had to receive as a result of his condition he contracted Hepatitis B, however he did not succumb to this disease, he was immune. His doctor told him that this made him special, and that his blood was valuable and he subsequently profited from this knowledge by selling samples of his blood. John Moore, on the other hand, had hairy-cell leukemia and only discovered his blood was valuable after his doctor had patented his cell-line, he was subsequently involved in lengthy legal action to regain some control of his cells.

As a scientist whose work once touched, peripherally on human tissue culture and who recently had surgery from which such tissue was taken this is a somewhat uncomfortable story. In the project I worked on a postdoc was tasked with organising consent forms for, I think, blood vessels removed during a procedure i.e. they were a by-product. In this instance the specifics of the cells were not important – they were destined for frequently unsuccessful experiments. From our point of view the best possible outcome would been that the materials we had synthesised proved to be a congenial home for blood vessel wall cells. In this case nothing of monetary value is derived directly from the donors cells.

For my own part: I have no problem with researchers using my medical offcuts, I do feel unhappy with the idea that my specific cells might be valuable and that I might not get a proportion of that value.

Feb 06 2011

Book review: Lives of the Engineers by Samuel Smiles

blucher_killingworth_1814Reading the biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel got me interested in engineers; Rolt, the author of the Brunel biography, mentioned the biographical writings of Samuel Smiles: in particular his “Lives of the Engineers”. This post is about one part of the full work: ”The Locomotive. George and Robert Stephenson” this edition was published in 1879 although the original was written in the years following George Stephenson’s death, around 1860. The title describes its contents. George Stephenson, although not the inventor of the first locomotive, was instrumental in making it a workable proposition and his son (Robert) continued in his fathers line of work, although died quite young.

George Stephenson (1781-1848) was born and grew up around Newcastle-upon Tyne, at the time the area was riddled with coal workings. His father was employed as a fireman working on the pumping engine at Wylam colliery.

George is described as an inquisitive child very interested in nature, and constructing models of the machines he saw around him. He started working with the engines at the colliery as a child progressing to ever more responsible jobs at a range of collieries. Alongside this he did various bits of other work, such as shoe-last making and clock and watch repairs to bring more money in; paying to be taught to read and do arithmetic as he entered his late teens. I can’t help making a parallel with Joseph Banks who benefited from a more prosperous upbringing. It’s worth noting here that Samuel Smiles also wrote a book called “Self-help”, it’s clear he’s very much taken with George Stephenson as a self-made man, he is also very much taken with the entirely private nature of the enterprises he undertook.

Steam engines had been used to pump water out of mineworkings since around 1710 with the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen. These were large, inefficient engines. The first attempts at making a traveling engine seemed to take place around 1769 by Cugnot in France with the first practical moving steam engines due to Richard Trevithick around the turn of the century (1800). In the meantime various miner owners were experimenting with modified roadways to ease the movement of large amounts of heavy stuff (ores, coal) from mine-head to waterway for onward transport. This started with the laying down of wooden roads, followed by metal plates (1738) and finally rails (1776). It’s intriguing to see how the coalescence of these elements around mineworkings led naturally to the invention of the locomotive. For the early railroads, such as the Manchester-Liverpool there was a very real question as to whether locomotives or horses should be used as moving force.

The Manchester-Liverpool line really is key here: it was built out of desperate need for better commercial communication between Liverpool (port) and Manchester (manufacturing centre). In common with many lines there was enormous opposition on the ground from landowners and canal owners. It is also here that the modern locomotive comes into being in the form of the “Rocket”, reliability and commercial viability being absolutely key. In common with Brunel, Stephenson also faced parliamentary committees scrutinising the appropriate railway bill. In early discussions Stephenson argued that the locomotives would not exceed a speed of 12 miles an hour, so as not to scare the parliamentarians. Early railway lines were built with goods in mind, but turned out to be immensely, surprisingly popular for the carrying of passengers. The alternative being slower, less comfortable horse-drawn carriages of much lower capacity. George Stephenson was also responsible for at least some of the initial surveying of routes.

The rate at which the rail network came into being is truly astounding. The Manchester–Liverpool was opened in late 1830 by 1843 there were lines linking London to Birmingham, Southampton, Bristol, Brighton and Dover. There were also lines from Liverpool to Manchester and Leeds and onwards to York and Middlesborough, there was also a line between Newcastle and Carlisle. Follow this there was a wild burst of speculative activity, with several hundred proposals to parliament for new lines in 1845 (maps here).

Also covered in this book is Robert Stephenson (1803-1859), George Stephenson’s son. George gave Robert the education that he wished for himself. Although Robert started his engineering career working in the Stephensons’ locomotive workshop, set up in Newcastle, prior to the building of the Manchester-Liverpool he went on to be involved in the surveying and planning of new railway lines. Most notably bridges such as the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits, the Victoria Bridge across the Lawrence Seaway and the High Level Bridge in Newcastle. These first two were both originally “tube” design but were modified in the case of the Victoria bridge to a trestle design and the Britannia bridge was destroyed by fire in 1970. The building of the railways necessitated a huge expansion in bridge building: big, strong, well-built bridges.

Overall an enjoyable read although I suspect Samuel Smiles does not comply with modern historical best practice, with his enthusiasm for self-help, and anecdotes shining through in a number of places. Nevertheless, I feel motivated to read some more of his biographical work of the engineers of the 18th and 19th century.


Full text of a number of Samuel Smiles books available here.

Jan 13 2011

Book Review: The Third Man by Peter Mandelson

TheThirdManA little bit of politics for this book review: “The Third Man: Life at the heart of New Labour” by Peter Mandelson. It’s been a while since I’ve read much politics; I did go through a spell of reading various diaries and biographies (Alan Clark, Tony Benn, John Major, Churchill) a number of years ago but gave up largely because the diarists and autobiographies seemed unwilling to accept they were wrong on anything, and I had a nasty experience with the biography of Gladstone.

I’m sort of fond of Peter Mandelson, I never really bought the Prince of the Dark Arts thing and he seems to be one of the more coalition minded senior Labour figures.

The book covers briefly Mandelson’s early life but the main focus of the book is the personal relationship between Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown from the late eighties all the way through to the 2010 election. Peripherally it is also the story of New Labour: firstly, a switch to a more professional presentational style, followed by the scrapping of Clause IV then it seems to go a bit vague in terms of a guiding policy theme. Mandelson states the central vision of New Labour being of fairness and social justice: but these are ideals I’m sure the Liberal Democrats would cleave to and the Tories would claim the same. Ultimately ideology is not helpful in discriminating between parties rather implementation of policy and no-one is really grasping the nettle of going for excellent implementation.

I’d always assumed that poor press for Labour ministers was as a result of biased media and some mysterious influence from the Tories that I hadn’t entirely thought through. Mandelson makes it pretty clear that the worst press for Labour came from Labour ministers and their hangers-on briefing against each other!

The central theme of the book was how awful the relationship between Brown and Blair was, lasting for many years and seriously hampering a New Labour programme for reform. The origin of this poor relationship is in the leadership struggle which took place following the death of John Smith in 1994. Communication between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor was poor, and they often seemed to be working largely to block each other. This makes hard reading, it’s like the story of a couple trapped in a loveless marriage “for the sake of the kids”. In some ways I find this disturbing: New Labour effectively provided it’s own opposition whilst in government in the sense that it limited their ability to make policy and enforce change on public services. What happens when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are working to the same agenda?

Clearly as a Liberal Democrat I’m interested in what he has to say about us, the truth is: not much. There seems to be a degree to which Mandelson and Blair held key early members such as Roy Jenkins in high regard, seeing them as something of a lost tribe who had left the Labour party in the early eighties believing it to be un-reformable. He also describes the talk toward involving the Liberal Democrats in government following the 1997 election, eventually floundering because ultimately there was no need to give anything to the Liberal Democrats. It does seem that there was some quiet local arrangements where Labour or Liberal Democrats agreed not to fight too hard against each other at general elections. I suspect things have changed in both parties now, Liberal Democrats and Labour members of my generation and younger joined well after the split so for us the “progressive alliance” is something of an old man’s tale.

What also comes through for me is how grateful Labour should be for our electoral system, in the 1983 election when Labour polled 27.6% and the SDP-Alliance polled 25.4% they still gained 209 seats as opposed to the meagre 23 that the SDP-Alliance achieved. Similarly at the 2010 election, the Conservatives lead Labour by 7.1% in votes but only 48 seats whilst in 2005 Labour led Tory by just 2.8% but gained a 157 seat lead over the Conservatives giving them a firm majority.

Mandelson’s description of the Coalition negotiations following the May 2010 General Election are consistent with the Laws and Wilson books which I reviewed previously. Labour had not made any pre-election plans for coalition, which I still find odd since Peter Mandelson clearly saw the possibility of a hung parliament; the Labour party was split on whether they should make the attempt and ultimately there was a recognition that the parliamentary arithmetic did not add up.

It’s clear that the current theme of “no cuts” from Labour is a continuation of the Brown policy pre-election, Alastair Darling appears to have made considerable efforts to reach a budget which made at least some effort to start addressing the deficit in the final days of the previous government, in the teeth of enormous opposition from Gordon Brown whilst other members of the team such as Ed Balls were keen to make further spending commitments. Brown’s great fear seemed to have been being labelled a “tax-and-spend” Chancellor, who seems to have ended up a “spend” Chancellor and in the long term that does not add up.

Is this a good book to read? It is if you want to know about the personal relationship at the core of the book, and if want to know more about Peter Mandelson. I’m tempted to read Andrew Rawnsley’s “The End of the Party” for a more detached view.

Dec 30 2010

Book review: Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

Mutants Armand Marie LeroiChristmas is a time for reading, so in addition to Rolt’s Brunel biography I have also read “Mutants: On the form, varieties & errors of the human body” by Armand Marie Leroi.

This is a story of developmental biology told through the medium of mutants, people for whom development doesn’t go quite to standard plan.

The book runs through a sequence of distinct mutations: Siamese twinning, deformities to arms and legs, skeletal defects, dwarfs and giants, various sexual variations, albinism and hairiness, and finally ageing. His approach does not revel in the freak show aspects of human mutants rather makes a brief reference to the historical recognition of such mutations and uses this as a jumping off point for discussion of modern biological understanding.

Mutations have long been an area for scientific study because it was realised that studying malfunction would provide clues to the mechanisms of normal development.

The marvel of developmental biology is that it is a method of construction completely at odds to the human way of making complex devices. Rather than a complex entity assembling pieces to a plan, biology starts with an instruction set which builds order out of chaos with no external help. It is self-organisation, creation from (nearly) nothing with no supporting infrastructure. There are non-biological self-organising systems and we make use of some of them industrially, but there is nothing that matches the complexity, the heterogeneity that biology can achieve.

The fundamentals of development biology are genes coding for proteins that tell you where you are in the developing embryo and trigger growth or differentiation on that basis i.e. “I find myself in the presence of proteins A, B, and C at these particular concentrations, therefore I must make a leg”. As an example, the proteins noggin and bone morphogenetic protein 4 (BMP4) define the top and bottom of the growing embryo – in simple terms noggin stimulates the growth of the brain. Whimsical naming of a protein may seem like a good idea in the lab but I imagine it makes discussions with parents about the problems of their perhaps-dead child difficult.

An intriguing point is the frequent robustness of developmental mechanisms, often as not molecular biologists have identified a “critical” protein, created a “knock-out” mouse lacking that protein and discovered that the mouse developed relatively well – other developmental systems having compensated for the loss.

The diverse effects of mutations can be surprising, for example there is a condition called Kartagener’s Syndrome whereby the internal organs of the body are flipped left-right – the heart, rather than lying slightly on the left of the body lies on the right and so forth. People with this syndrome have respiratory problems, a diminished sense of smell and sterility. The cause of these apparently disparate problems is a faulty cilia motor, cilia are small hairs on the surface of a cell that move. In the lungs and nose they whip about to move mucus around, in men the cilia motor drives the tail of sperm, and in the developing embryo the whipping of cilia break the left-right symmetry. Hence failure of the cilia motor proteins leads to a diverse set of impacts.

In addition to proteins which induce specific behaviours, there are proteins which have a more overarching impacts, such as those produced in the pituitary gland, malfunctions of which can lead to dwarfism or gigantism.

As usual my butterfly mind has fixed on some less relevant portions of the book. Plato giving voice to Aristophanes in The Symposium posited that sexual desire can be explained because man and woman were once combined: in fact three pairings existed man-man, man-woman and woman-woman. These creatures were physically joined, having four arms and legs, two heads and two “privy members”. However, they were troublesome (cartwheeling on their eight limbs is explicitly mentioned) – so Zeus separated them into the men and women. And now everyone seeks to find their original partner thus explaining homo- and hetero-sexuality. There’s some suggestion that Plato was making a little fun of Greek myth here!

Thanks to this book I have learned that the male scrotum is the homologous structure to the female labia, the two halves have fused to form a handy sack. The development of sexual organs finds the male really as something that has failed to become female.

Leroi finishes with signposts to a couple of open areas in developmental biology, one is race: people have a moderate ability to identify racial groups and tie them to countries but current genetics cannot match this ability often finding much bigger variations within populations. As Leroi highlights, this is a fraught area in social terms but it is interesting that differences obvious to people are not obvious to genetics. Secondly he mentions beauty: does beauty tell us something about genetic fitness?

This book highlights the huge gap between knowing the base pair sequence of DNA and understanding how the organisms arise from that sequence. At times the language gets technical a little too quickly and it could really have done with some explanatory diagrams.

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