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Old body, new science

The Secret Body: How the New Science of the Human Body Is Changing the Way We Live By Daniel M. Davis; Published by Vintage Digital; 218 pages; ₹470

Daniel M. Davis zeroes in on technological developments that lead to scientific breakthroughs, and the tools that scientists use.

In this compact book, Daniel M. Davis promises to reveal how "the new science of the human body is changing the way we live". Although the book does not quite live up to that expansive promise, it's remarkable what it accomplishes in a mere 218 pages.

How does Davis, a Professor of Immunology at the University of Manchester, manage this? He has selected six areas of research where recent developments are radically altering perceptions of how the body works. He starts with a chapter on the development of super-resolution microscopy. The other areas he covers in similar fashion, with some potted history and frequent segues into related areas, are in vitro fertilisation, cell sorting using fluorescent antibody tags, the microbiome, the 'connectome', and (no prizes for guessing) the genome. Each topic is an opportunity to showcase the technological developments leading to the breakthrough.

Science is an emergent property of a mix of ingredients that is more like homemade soup than a Lego brick model. Davis opens a window into how science 'happens' - which differs from how science is 'done'. The pattern goes like this: a new finding in an unrelated area, fortuitous meetings between scientists working in different areas, repurposing of knowledge from one area for application to another and - the most important ingredient in the soup - scientists who persevere against humongous odds.

What this concoction achieves ever so often is truly miraculous: light microscopy that breaks the resolution barrier imposed by the wavelength of light; the maintenance and growth of human embryos in dishes for weeks; the sorting of cells one at a time to isolate pure populations of cell subtypes; the ability to tease out from the jumble of nerve cells all the connections in the brain, one connection at a time; and the rapid-fire sequencing of the human genome.


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