Capsule Reviews

How to Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation
By Agnès Guillot & Jean-Arcady Meyer; translated by Susan Emanuel
The MIT Press
232 pp. $29.95

Where do physicists turn for inspiration? To biology, naturally. Back in the day, we used to dream of being like the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, our bodies made of space-age metal and plastic, squishy biology replaced by new technology. But the opposite process—nature inspiring technological breakthroughs—goes back centuries. Nature’s technology-transfer office could have done a brisk trade: wristwatches with cricket-inspired alarms, self-sharpening knife blades based on rat’s teeth, and of course, Velcro.

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Appealing Choice

The nature-inspired gadgets covered in the lavishly illustrated How to Catch a Robot Rat include bipeds, quadrupeds, hexapods, fish, snakes, birds and insect drones, Honda’s humanoid robot, ASIMO, and even a “SmartFish” concept plane that looks decidedly aquatic. The future is likely to be...

On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science
by David Goodstein
Princeton University Press
184 pp. $22.95

Did the discoverer of the charge on the electron, Robert A. Millikan, falsify the data leading to his Nobel Prize? What was the real story behind cold fusion? What’s the difference between scientific fraud, misconduct, and simple error? With the number of retractions and instances of apparently fraudulent behavior seemingly on the rise, scientists and the public might well be worried about the state of science today.

Physicist David Goodstein takes an entertaining romp through some real-life, high-profile cases of alleged fraud, dissecting the available evidence and drawing some surprising conclusions. Goodstein draws on his own experience as vice provost at the California Institute of Technology, where he also teaches a course on scientific ethics, to formulate three conditions that appear necessary for fraud to occur: career pressure, expectation of a particular result, and the lack of a need for precise reproducibility. Biology seems especially prone to these, but physics does not escape lightly in Goodstein’s account. Science is a messy business, but is ultimately self-correcting. Pecuniary motives and the human cost of fraud are thrown into the mix in this guide to identifying and preventing scientific fraud.

Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes That Make Us Human
by Jeremy Taylor
Oxford University Press
256 pp. $14.95

It is fashionable to put down human beings. Anthropocentrism is out; one-ness with nature is in. We are, the argument goes, nothing more—or less—than hairless monkeys with iPhones and nuclear weapons. After all, human DNA is only 1.6% different from chimpanzee DNA.

Against this prevailing view, Jeremy Taylor argues that six million years of separate evolution has made humans and chimps something less than kissing cousins. That 1.6% doesn’t sound like much, but when you look at the details, a vastly different picture emerges. Small but critical changes in the immune system, regulators of gene expression, and wholesale genome changes at the structural level all add up to make humans what we are today. Taylor complements the genetics with a review of behavioral studies that suggest we are as similar, or dissimilar, to chimpanzees as we are to dogs and crows.

This celebration of humanity’s uniqueness is more than an academic exercise, though. Taylor highlights the case of Matthew Hiasl Pan, a chimp for whom Austrian supporters tried to secure official status as a human being to demonstrate why the granting of “human” rights to nonhumans is a spectacularly bad idea. Fans of Jane Goodall, look away now.

Here Is a Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics
by Misha Angrist
352 pp. $26.99

Never mind chimpanzees, there is much to learn about differences within the human race. But sequencing human genomes is fraught with ethical and social difficulties, not to mention the technical and financial ones. We think of our own genomes as secret and personal, and Misha Angrist’s tale of becoming the fourth subject in the Personal Genome Project is highly personal and often emotionally charged. Questions of identity, ancestry, health, and race all plague the author’s mind as he awaits the output from next-generation sequencing machines.

Personal genomics, however, has the potential to destroy the barrier between the individual and society. When someone has one’s genome sequenced and the data analyzed, disease risk is probably at the forefront of his or her mind. But the real impact of having genomes at our fingertips is going to be on society, on health insurance and care, and even government policy. Will personal genetic information be a useful clinical diagnostic, or might it become a marketing tool? Is getting your genomic sequenced a right, a duty, or a curse? Suppose you (or your children) just don’t want to know? In the Genome Generation, will privacy become a thing of the past?

Angrist is a pioneer. Like it or not, some day we’re all going to be confronted with our genetic selves.

Interested in reading more?

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