September 6, 2020

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Electricity in the Human Body
by Frances Ashcroft.
W. W. Norton, 2012. (339 pages)

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[Numbers in parentheses = page numbers]

INTRODUCTION — I Sing the body Electric (1-




4) MIND THE GAP (80-






10) ALL WIRED UP (226-

11) MIND MATTERS (256-


NOTES (312-




INDEX (323-

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AUTHOR NOTE = Frances Ashcroft is an award-winning scientist, a professor of physiology at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of both Trinity College Oxford and the Royal Society, and an internationally best-selling author. With inimitable wit and a clear, fresh voice, award-winning researcher Frances Ashcroft weaves together compelling real-life stories with the latest scientific findings, giving us a spectacular account of the body electric. She lives in Oxford, UK.

SUMMARY = The book is an exciting story about the body electric, showing how, from before conception and birth to the final breath you take, electrical signals in your cells are essential to everything you think and do. The history of how scientists discovered the role of electricity in the human body is a colorful one

BOOK DESCRIPTION = What is consciousness? What happens during a heart attack? Can someone really die of fright? What is death, anyway? How does electroshock treatment affect the brain? The answers to these questions lie in the electrical signals constantly traveling through your body, driving your thoughts, your movements, and even the beating of your heart. Ashcroft gives us a spectacular account of the body electric with the latest scientific findings and with inimitable wit and a clear, fresh voice.

The award-winning researcher writes with inimitable wit and a clear, fresh voice. The book is filled with extraordinary personalities, fierce debates, and brilliant experiments. It weaves together compelling real-life stories with the latest scientific findings. Present-day research on electricity and ion channels has created one of the most exciting fields in science. It sheds light on conditions ranging from diabetes and allergies to cystic fibrosis, migraines, and male infertility. The book contains 30 illustrations.

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[1] PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = With style and enthusiasm, Oxford professor Ashcroft (Life at the Extremes) reveals the ubiquitous role electricity plays in our bodies. In the late 1700s, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani's experiments with frogs showed that animals produced their own electricity. His nephew Giovanni Aldini conducted public demonstrations using the corpses of recently executed criminals that gave the appearance of "re-animation" and probably sparked Mary Shelley's imagination when she created Frankenstein as well as the Victorian idea of the "mad scientist." But scientists didn't know how that electricity was produced in the body until the 1970s, when physicist Erwin Neher and physiologist Bert Sakmann measured the minuscule flow of current as potassium and sodium ions moved through tiny gates --- ion channels-in a cell membrane. With this grounding, Ashcroft widens the story to explore everything from how different nerve agents, like puffer fish venom, curare, and botox, work, to how electric eels generate electricity, how defibrillators stabilize the heart's rhythms, and how our brains interpret sensory data. Ashcroft's writing is clear and accessible, offering surprising insights into the "electrical machine" we call the human body. 50 illus. -- Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Literary Agency.

[2] LIBRARY JOURNAL = Most people learn in school that nerves control your muscles, senses, and brain, but many adults would struggle to explain exactly how this occurs. Physiologist Ashcroft (Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor, Oxford University; Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival) writes an engaging and authoritative guide to how nerves communicate across gaps called synapses, and so make life possible. Ashcroft introduces her readers to the discovery of the effects of electricity on biological organisms, including the work of Benjamin Franklin and Luigi Galvani as well as colorful quacks with fancy gadgets, epitomized by the fictional Doctor Frankenstein.

She also describes the consequences of deadly nerve poisons (e.g., curare) as well as natural defects in the body's electrical system, such ASL, heart arrhythmias, epilepsy, and migraines. Electricity, she assures her readers, also leads to lifesaving devices such as pacemakers and probes for deep-brain electrical stimulation that help reduce tremors and severe depression. Verdict: Ashcroft clearly and patiently introduces complicated science while enlivening her narrative with fascinating tales of electric eels, fugu fish poisoning, and fainting goats. Serious readers will be both challenged and entertained. -- Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL.

[3] BOOK LIST REVIEW ==*Starred Review* Our ability to move, to perceive, to speak, and to think depends on electrical events that continuously occur in nerve and muscle cells. Or, as University of Oxford physiologist Ashcroft puts it: Humans are electrical machines. The maestros of these cellular electric orchestras are ion channels important proteins that don't get the celebrity status afforded to the likes of hemoglobin or collagen. The spark of life referred to in the book's title refers to the ubiquitous ion channels that steer sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium ions through cell membranes. Electricity even when produced by the body is expensive. Ashcroft estimates a cost of nearly one-third the oxygen we inhale and one-half the food we consume to maintain the ion concentration gradients across cell membranes that function like molecular batteries. Physiology, cellular biology, and physics dominate the discussion, but an infusion of history, levity, and shocking tidbits about electricity enliven the reading. For example, a specialized ion channel turbocharges the tails of human sperm. The human body is a symphony of complicated chemical and electrical signals. Let Ashcroft's book serve as your program guide. -- Miksanek, Tony

[4] CHOICE REVIEW = Renowned physiologist Ashcroft (Univ. of Oxford, UK) has the rare ability to compose text in a style that is accessible to nearly all readers. This fascinating book first examines the history of the discovery of electricity and its early use as a sort of sideshow attraction. The next 12 chapters describe the passage of electrically charged atoms (ions) across cell membranes, how this allows the conduction of impulses along nerve cells and regulates the beating of the heart, and how this electrical passage (and its disruption) has a consequential impact on life itself at both relatively simple and exquisitely complex levels of biological organization. Throughout the work, Ashcroft provides anecdotes that remind readers of events in their own lives or the lives of those around them. These include a passing lightning storm that raises one's hair on end, fish kills from red tide, fainting goats, and an electrocardiogram at the cardiologist's office. Each physiological revelation is placed squarely in context. Besides the excellent text, the book contains explanatory chapter notes, a 3-page reading list, and a finely detailed 17-page index. Anyone interested in the electrical events that make life possible should add this volume to their collection. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Students of all levels and general readers. L. A. Meserve Bowling Green State University.

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[1] This is a wonderful book. Frances Ashcroft has a rare gift for making difficult subjects accessible and fascinating. (Bill Bryson, author of At Home: A Short History of Private Life)

[2] An extraordinary fusion of culture and cutting-edge science. (Nick Smith - Engineering and Technology)

[3] Starred review. The human body is a symphony of complicated chemical and electrical signals. Let Ashcroft’s book serves as your program guide. (Tony Miksanek - Booklist)

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[1] The author is a renowned physiologist at Oxford University who is recognized in the scientific circles for her seminal work on Insulin, since 1984. As a surgeon and a scientist I was intrigued by the title and purchased the book as an afterthought without even leafing through it. I judged the book by its cover! And I am so glad that I did. The chapters are well organized in an orderly historical sequence that guides the reader from the early days of the discovery of electricity, it's crude applications and simple experiments until finally reaching the modern era of the electron microscope and sophisticated imagery. The contributions of Benjamin Franklin, Luigi Galvani, J.J. Thompson, Hodgkin & Huxley et al are explained in clear terms, eschewing scientific jargon. The physiology of cells, where the "sodium pump" plays a vital role, the production of electrical pulse and its effect on organ function is lucidly explained. The lay interested reader and the scientist will find the work fascinating. The book is 339 pages and is well worth the investment in dollars and time. by Sinohey.

[2] I thought this was a terrific book. The subject perhaps sounds a little dry, but Frances Ashcroft writes exceptionally well and shows, with genuine enthusiasm and great expertise, how the electrical systems of the body determine so much of its ability to function and their effect on our everyday (and not so everyday) lives. She is at the forefront of research in this area (specifically ion channels) and her depth of knowledge and understanding are apparent throughout the book.

Ashcroft explains the molecular mechanisms by which electrical signals are transmitted in the body, their effects and their vital importance with great clarity and very interestingly. She often draws on examples of familiar (and not so familiar) illnesses and the effects of well-known poisons to illuminate what she is saying, and the book is well illustrated with very clear line-drawings which I found invaluable. I found the whole thing fascinating and although this certainly isn't a book which you can read like a novel, I often found myself engrossed and wanting to read more.

If you have any interest in science this book will interest you. It isn't always a light read and requires some pretty serious concentration in places, but the effort is well worth it. Some background knowledge of chemistry or biochemistry certainly helps but is by no means essential, and anyone who has tried Brian Cox's books, for example, would find this on a comparable intellectual level but with far less mathematics and fewer utterly counter-intuitive ideas. This is one of the best science books for the general reader which I have read for some time and I recommend it very warmly -- by Sid Nuncius.

[3] I hope the publisher and author decide to make an audio version of this book. This material is going to be the future of medicine and the biochemistry and electrical physiology converge, diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other brain diseases can only be cured through a deep understanding of the electrical processes in the brain. the heart has alpha and beta, we do not yet know the key molecules that make electricity in the brain. -- by H. Connelly

[4] This book is about what I've always wondered about. It is a great book. It explains, in terms the layman can follow, how electricity works in the body, how it is different from the electricity that keeps the lights on, what exactly is a pore in the cell membrane and the staggering number of ions that can pass through a single pore, how the pore actively regulates the passage of phosphorus ions (large) and sodium ions (small) in and out of the cell across the cell membrane. Years ago I wondered how ATP worked, how did it actually make a muscle cell contract, and then I found an explanation: a fast acting ratcheting mechanism. This book answers "how does it work, really?" questions. I have not finished reading it yet, but every chapter is fascinating. -- by June Niece

[5] The book, "Spark of Life," lacks spark! The book is an interesting collection of science, anecdotes, and examples related to ion channels and electricity in biology and medicine. While some of the content, such as the history of electricity and the role of ion channels in the muscular and nervous systems is unlikely to be entirely new to readers already familiar with the history of science and basic biology or physiology, there were many fascinating examples and details. It was very satisfying to understand how some rare medical conditions can be explained in terms of ion channel function. I also particularly enjoyed the way the author tied together incidents from the world of popular culture (like episodes from James Bond and Agatha Christie novels), history (like Henry VIII), and weird news (like fainting goats) into the science.

However, even though I appreciated the book for the reasons above, I felt that the book lacked a certain "spark." By this, I mean that despite the engaging content, it failed to pick up momentum.

I know that in writing about science for a general audience, authors face the challenge of explaining why the science is interesting and relevant. However, I think this book went a little overboard. Each chapter started off with an introductory quotation from a poem or work of literature, which was not always referred to in the subsequent text. That in itself may have been OK, but the author did not stop there, following up with another "hook" to get the reader interested in the topic. For example, the chapter on perception starts off with a quote by William Blake. Then the author asks you to imagine you are sitting with her in her garden and to think of all the sensations that you may experience. Right after that, to launch the topic of vision, the author tells you that "Our eyes are our windows on the world" and continues on to paint another scene of herself looking out at a beautiful landscape. Reading through some of these drawn-out and not particularly original introductions, I wished the book would just get into the content. In the example above, I don't think that much exposition was needed for most people to agree that perception and vision are very important. Other areas could have been more concise also.

In addition, every chapter is split up into many subsections, each with a clever-sounding title like " Power to the People," "The Beat Goes On," and "Making Waves." Clearly, the author was trying hard to keep the text from becoming dry with these kinds of titles, but at some point I felt like the clichés were drowning out the writing. This was especially so because the writing in the body was generally in a more reserved style. Further, some of these subsection titles were not very descriptive, making it difficult to find specific sections without remembering the details and looking them up in the index. For example, "Power to the People" was the title for two paragraphs describing Volta's creation of electric piles and his writing about it to the Royal Society of London. "Power to the People" may have been an allusion to the international communication between scientists about batteries, but this wasn't entirely obvious to me. The chapter subsections were often very short, and at times the frequent subdivisions seemed to interrupt the narrative, contributing to the lack of momentum. Transitions between some of the subsections could also have been smoother.

The biggest issue for me was that it was hard to follow the logical flow on occasion and some of the writing was not very clean. For example, the author says that "the voltage difference between one point and another is equivalent to the difference in water pressure that causes water to flow from one region to another." I reminded myself that this is a popular book, but I couldn't help but cringe when I read this. Voltage might be analogous to pressure in an analogy between current flow and fluid flow, but it is certainly not "equivalent." I realized that if my only background on electricity came from the description in this book, I would have been pretty confused. In other sections with which I was not as familiar, the less than careful writing hindered my understanding a few times.

The author has a tendency to introduce new concepts within long sentences and to use "that" to refer to earlier parts of sentences in a way I found confusing. For example, one sentence says, "Calcium enters the cell via calcium channels in the pre-synaptic nerve membrane that open in response to the voltage change produced by the arrival of the nerve impulse." Multiple shorter sentences may have made the sequences in some of the more complicated processes easier to understand. As another example, a sentence about Edison reads, "A US hero, following Edison's funeral President Hoover requested that North Americans dim their lights for one minute as a tribute to his memory." While in this case it's fairly obvious that "hero" refers to Edison, the sentences dealing with some of the science weren't always as obvious. Diagrams outlining the ion-channel processes described would have been useful.

Additionally, the examples of people afflicted by ion channel-related disorders, who were named but never introduced, caused me to pause a bit. The author would say something like "One morning Nancy all of a sudden fell down in her kitchen" (this is a fake example sentence which I think is pretty typical, not an actual excerpt from the book). It's true that more specific examples with people can add human interest, but I didn't see the point of calling the example people by name when nothing else was said about them. Had the author provided some introduction of their lives and interests before describing their conditions, this might have been effective. Instead, the author simply plunges into examples of disorders assigned to specific names without saying anything more about the people these names belong to. At first, this made we wonder whether I missed an introduction to some of these people earlier in the book.

So if you're looking for a book that expands your breadth of knowledge of electricity and ion-channels in biology while weaving in entertaining anecdotes, history, and popular culture, by all means read this book. Even with the lack of momentum, many parts were undeniably interesting and the excellent integration of examples from non-science areas was well done. However, if you're looking to build up a deep understanding of electricity and biological ion channels, something else may be needed.


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Frances Ashcroft


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