Pop Science Review: A Molecule Away From Madness

March 18, 2022 Uncategorized 6 ★★★½

Pop Science Review: A Molecule Away From MadnessTitle: A Molecule Away from Madness: Tales of the Hijacked Brain
Author: Sara Manning Peskin
Source: from publisher for review
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: Not enough details given that this is so closely related to my professional interests, but I think the fascinating stories and clear descriptions will make this a winner for most readers.

This was a fascinating look at disorders of the brain which each have a single, known molecular cause. The author did a great job picking individual stories to tell to introduce us to each disease. The stories are really moving. They also include a good number of stories where there is either already a cure or some hope of a cure. That kept the collection more upbeat than it might have been. The stories where a cure is on the horizon also felt like they were covering some cutting edge science.

Objectively, I think this was an incredible book. It was engaging and so easy to follow. The author has an impressive ability to explain scientific topics accurately (if simply) with very little scientific jargon. The organization of diseases by class of mechanism was one of the best examples I’ve seen of book organization helping readers mentally organize new information. I think this book is going to appeal to most readers, even people who might usually be intimidated by science nonfiction. The many positive goodreads reviews suggest this is the case. However, as someone who works in genomics, I found this disappointingly light.

Although the author does a good job describing the science accurately, she doesn’t describe it completely. For example, she describes using genetic ‘tags’ to find the gene responsible for Huntington’s disease and describes a candidate treatment for ALS as ‘a DNA-like molecule’. I was able to guess  (I think correctly, based on a google search) that she’s talking about using linkage disequilibrium to find the Huntington’s disease gene and about using RNAi for ALS treatment. Her description doesn’t give complete info about either of these mechanisms. By avoiding jargon, she also doesn’t give people the language they need to discuss these ideas succinctly. As someone who works in a related field, I couldn’t discuss these topics without that level of detail unless I wanted to look professionally incompetent.

For most readers, I do think the ease of reading and accessibility will be a worth giving up some detail. The stories told here are fascinating. The scientific concepts are very cool and I think a reader will get an accurate, high-level understanding of the science from this book. I love that a book exists that shares these stories with fun, easy, accurate descriptions! It’s just that as someone steeped in the professional jargon and interested in the greater specificity that jargon provides, this book wasn’t the best fit for me.

6 Responses to “Pop Science Review: A Molecule Away From Madness”

    • DoingDewey

      It’s true! Although I wanted more science details here, I love books that include great individual stories about patients or doctors and scientists 🙂

  1. Rennie Sweene

    Loved getting on your take on this! I really liked this one and as someone outside of the science field, I didn’t even notice how much was missing in terms of specificity. Since this one was really so accessible (I try not to read science/med stuff at night when I’m too tired but ended up doing that with this one and it still made sense to me!) I think it must’ve been on purpose to appeal to a broader audience. But the book in general was really brief and definitely could’ve included some more detail. Disappointing that it sounds like really so much was avoided!

    And you’re so right that it managed to be “upbeat”, surprisingly – too much bad news about diseases I didn’t know existed is one reason I avoided medical nonfiction for so long, so I especially loved something like this that managed to focus on where progress has been and is being made.

    • DoingDewey

      I’m not sure it’s generally bad that this didn’t include more detail or the scientific terms for things. I was really impressed by how well the author simplified the science while still staying accurate, so I don’t think readers need to worry they’re missing something important or learning something that’s not true. If she were able to explain the more complex details as clearly as she did the topics she covered though, I’d definitely have loved for the book to have been another 100 pages longer and to have included that info!

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