One Renegade Cell

I’ve just finished One Renegade Cell. It is probably the best pop-sci book I have read. The book provides an overview of how our understanding of cancer has developed over the last few decades. It reminded me of the “Double Helix” book by Crick and Watson, in that “science” is portrayed in a very honest manner – filled with dead-ends, misunderstandings, chance discoveries, persistence, hard work and dumb luck. I found it quite easy to read, since each new concept is introduced only when needed, and explained in context.

Also, the book contains some classic lines, such as “the colon provides an embarassment of riches” and “our understanding of metastasis is still fragmentary”.

As a computer scientist, I couldn’t help thinking of the problem in terms of reverse-engineering binary programs. I’m evidentally not the first to think in these terms. Reverse-engineering a well-written program is difficult enough, but understanding cancer is more akin to reverse-engineering some multi-threaded spaghetti code.

The book drills down from a high-level epidemological view of cancer, right down to the level of bases and proteins. The book finishes off down at this low level, and this left me feeling that I had seen the static structure (DNA and enzymes) and dynamic structure (proteins synthesis and chemical message pathways) of human cells. Well, not just some anonymous ideal “human”, but my cells too. But now I’m intrigued as to what makes “me” different from a bundle of cellular clockwork, dumbly following the laws of chemistry/physics. There’s no need for consciousness in the clockwork world of cell biology.

I often look at flies flying around in their weird “go straight then change direction after a random time” manner and wonder if they are just essentially chemical finite-state machines. And perhaps, someone might look at me and imagine that I too am just a chemical finite-state machine! And I might not have an easy job convincing them that I’m not. But even thought there’s plenty of basic chemistry going on inside me, that’s not the whole story because there is a “me” here looking out.

Ah, so I think I’ve talked myself into buying a second book from the “Science Masters” series – How Brains Think!

In other news, Susan and I got married earlier this month. Woo! 🙂