Science non fiction

All posts in the Science non fiction category

The Secret Life Of Sleep – Kat Duff

Published December 30, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

What makes us cross the line from waking to slumber? According to Harvard scientists it’s our ‘sleep switch’ – a cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus. For the ancient Greeks it was the god Hypnos, caressing you with his wings. For the Blackfeet Indians, a butterfly. And in European children’s tales, the Sandman, sprinkling you with dust.

Why do we sleep? What happens in our brains when we sleep? Why are sleep patterns in modern Western industrialised countries so unhealthy? Is the boundary between sleep and wakefulness as clear cut as we might have supposed? How meaningful are dreams? Kat Duff brings insights from her own life, from the latest in sleep science, the paintings of Salvidor Dali, the musings of Michel de Montaigne, and wisdom and rituals from around the world and the past to paint a fascinating picture of a world that is both the most intimate and the most secret to us: sleep.

What did I think?:

From time to time I do enjoy a good non-fiction read, especially in the field of popular science as it relates to what I do for a living. When I saw this book in my local bookshop, I couldn’t resist. Neuroscience is probably one of my favourite areas so I find anything that involves how our brain works fascinating and irresistible. I was pleased to see that the author covers a wide range of topics related to sleep, including dreams and their possible interpretations, sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis, sleep walking and most interestingly for me, how other cultures view sleep both historically and currently.

I always hope to come out of a book like this with lots of lovely new information to store away and remember at some point in the future (usually inane facts to bore my friends and family with!). For example, the author recounts a story of a sleep-walking woman in Denver who got in her car, drove down the road, caused an accident, urinated in the middle of an intersection and became violent with police – all while still asleep! We also learn about whales and dolphins who always sleep with one hemisphere of their brain awake as they need to be able to breathe. Therefore, they float on the surface of the water while one side sleeps then change direction to give the other side a little rest. It was while reading passages like these that I enjoyed the book most.

Perhaps it’s a personal preference but the author seemed to put more of her own anecdotes in compared to good, solid, scientific fact. While it was interesting to read her theories and opinions at times I wished for a slightly more analytical look at such a fascinating topic. She writes in a beautiful way although some people might consider her language a bit too “flowery,” for a non-fiction book. Personally, I found her prose to be something a bit different and it did bring a certain flair to sections which may otherwise seem a bit dry. It looked at sleep from a variety of different angles i.e. psychology, philosophy, mythology which was interesting but sometimes I found things to be a little irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve read a book which solely focuses on sleep before so I don’t really have anything to compare it to but I think to anyone who is interested in the subject it’s a decent enough read and at the end, I did feel like I had learned a few things.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

 

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The Tale Of The Duelling Neurosurgeons: The History Of The Human Brain As Revealed By True Stories Of Trauma, Madness and Recovery – Sam Kean

Published November 15, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

From the author of the best-seller The Disappearing Spoon, tales of the brain and the history of neuroscience.

Early studies of the functions of the human brain used a simple method: wait for misfortune to strike-strokes, seizures, infectious diseases, lobotomies, horrendous accidents-and see how the victim coped. In many cases survival was miraculous, and observers could only marvel at the transformations that took place afterward, altering victims’ personalities. An injury to one section can leave a person unable to recognize loved ones; some brain trauma can even make you a pathological gambler, paedophile, or liar. But a few scientists realized that these injuries were an opportunity for studying brain function at its extremes. With lucid explanations and incisive wit, Sam Kean explains the brain’s secret passageways while recounting forgotten stories of common people whose struggles, resiliency, and deep humanity made modern neuroscience possible.

What did I think?:

I couldn’t resist The Duelling Neurosurgeons when I saw it, it’s got everything I could possibly ask for from a popular science book. Firstly, it focuses on arguably the most exciting and mysterious organ in the human body – the brain, which has always fascinated me ever since I studied a module on neuroscience as part of my first degree. Secondly, it combines triumphs (and disasters) of neurosurgeons through history and provides case studies of “real,” patients, some of whom left me dumbfounded. For example, the blind man who travelled the world by using echolocation and textbook studies such as Phineas Gage who received such a traumatic brain injury that it ended up changing his entire personality. Finally (and perhaps one of the things that excited me the most), Sam Kean introduces each chapter by providing a little puzzle or “rebus” to illustrate what the content of that particular chapter might be about.

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This was so much fun and I was quite strict with myself, not going on to read the chapter until I had figured out the rebus. This proved quite frustrating with some of the trickier images!

Why The Duelling Neurosurgeons? Well, it all starts in 1559 where King Henri II of France receives a traumatic injury to his brain after a jousting accident. The two most prominent brain doctors of the day, Paré and Vesalius (who also founded what we know now as modern anatomy) were called to his bedside and although some of their methods for treating the king were quite primitive, essentially they both led the way for further experimentation and brain surgery today. For example, Paré was quite keen on strange concoctions and compresses, one in particular consisted of egg yolk, turpentine, earthworms and dead puppies. Each to their own I guess?!… He also devised a strange experiment that allowed him to differentiate between fatty tissue and brain tissue in a frying pan where fat was seen to liquefy and brain would shrivel.

There is a wealth of interesting information from case studies put forward in this book but I’ll just mention a couple of my favourites. The section on phantom limbs, where someone who has recently had a limb amputated can still feel pain in the area that the limb used to be was fascinating but did you know that some women who have had complete hysterectomies can still have phantom menstrual pains? Or there are even such things as phantom teeth, phantom penises and phantom erections? The topics covered by the author are intriguing, informative and endlessly thought-provoking. In fact, I’ve never had so much fun before reading a popular science book. I have the author’s first two books to read on my Kindle – The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb and if they’re half as entertaining as this one was, I’m in for a treat. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about this surprising and brilliant organ.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

Extremes: Life, Death And The Limits Of The Human Body – Kevin Fong

Published September 9, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Drawing on his own experiences in trauma surgery as an anaesthetist and intensive care expert, ‘Extremes’ is Kevin Fong’s account of the way cutting-edge medicine is pushing the envelope of human survival.

What did I think?:

Along with the mountain load of fiction I read, I love to throw a non-fiction book into the mix from time to time especially popular science as it relates to my day job (scientist by day, blogger by night!). Extremes looked particularly good when I spied it on the shelves in my local library, I was intrigued not only by the title but by the anticipated content. Dr Kevin Fong has a degree in astrophysics, a topic which has fascinated him from an early age but he also made it through medical school. He is based at University College Hospital, London as a consultant anaesthetist with a special interest in trauma therefore has a wealth of knowledge and experience under his belt for writing this book. He breaks it down into nine separate chapters entitled: ICE, FIRE, HEART, TRAUMA, INTENSIVE CARE, WATER, ORBIT, MARS and FINAL FRONTIERS and explains in each chapter how the human body reacts, copes and deals with extreme circumstances.

I really loved the way in which this book was presented. The author takes us back into history for example discussing the fate of poor explorer Robert Falcon Scott in 1910 who became severely hypothermic and died when faced with the adverse weather conditions of the South Pole. The author will then build on the historical information that we are given and describe the amazing frontier that we have reached nowadays. Think about a heart bypass operation where the body is cooled down and its processes taken over by a heart-lung machine so that surgeons can begin their repair of the heart without fear of the body becoming toxic or the irreparable effects of the lack of oxygen on the brain. It is down to an explosion in technology and improved knowledge of our physiology that the greatest scientists and doctors have been able to provide us with better care and indeed, prolong or save our lives in a critical situation.

One of my favourite bits of our history was reading about the renowned surgeon Archibald McIndoe who became a pioneer and probably invented the field of plastic surgery during World War II, after treating hundreds of young soldiers with horrific burn injuries. He would take a piece of skin from a normal part of the body i.e. not burned and graft it onto the burned site, such as the face. The only problem with this they found was that for the “new skin,” to develop its own blood supply correctly it initially had to be attached to the place where the skin was taken in the first place. If you’ve seen pictures of men with their noses attached to their arms, that’s what I’m alluding to but here’s a picture to make it clearer.

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Image courtesy of http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/southern_counties/4274838.stm

Another thing that I loved about this book was Dr Fong’s own anecdotes like the time in 1999 when he was a newly qualified doctor and his surgical team were called to the site of a bombing in Soho. The way he describes seeing the carnage was almost heart-breaking and it emphasised the importance for him of three little letters – A (for Airway) B (for Breathing) and C (for Circulation) when dealing with a severe incident such as this. On a more light-hearted note, he also describes being lucky (or unlucky) enough to ride on the “vomit comet.” This is a special aeroplane which climbs to 35,000 feet before the plane free-falling through the air for twenty seconds or so. It is supposed to simulate weightlessness in the way that astronauts experience while in space. From his description though, I’m not sure he will be repeating the experience!

The author finishes Extremes with a couple of chapters about space and the race to get the first man on Mars. It wasn’t my favourite part of the book although I did find it interesting and it is obviously a great passion for the author, who has also had a placement at NASA. Overall, this is a terrific read. If you’re interested in the human body, particularly in how we struggle in severe situations, this is the book for you. You don’t have to have a scientific background to read it, it is explained very simply without ever once being patronising. Kevin Fong manages to mix historical evidence and personal experience with a sound knowledge and relaxed writing style to put his readers at ease and enthrall us. If he decides to write another, I’ll be sure to read it and then tell you all about it of course!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

 

The Neurotourist: Postcards From The Edge Of Brain Science – Lone Frank

Published January 21, 2015 by bibliobeth

The Neurotourist: Postcards from the Edge of Brain Science

What’s it all about?:

Discover the true heart of humanity: the brain. Your brain shapes your world, but you can also shape your brain. From the God helmet to the No Lie MRI, award-winning journalist Lone Frank embarks on an incredible adventure to the frontiers of neuroscience, revealing how today’s top scientists are reinventing human nature, morality, happiness, health, and reality itself. Interlacing bizarre experiments, cutting-edge research, and irreverent interviews, The Neurotourist is an unforgettable tour of the mind-bending revolution underway in the new age of the brain. A critically-acclaimed journalist, science writer, and TV presenter, Lone Frank also holds a PhD in neurobiology and has worked as a research scientist in Denmark and the US. Apart from a particularly ‘cute’ corpus callosum she has an expert’s word that her brain is quite unremarkable.

What did I think?:

I was quite excited when I saw this title at my local library as my favourite non-fiction books are usually science-based and I’m fascinated with the whole area of neuroscience which is constantly changing as we learn more about the mysterious goings-on of our brains. Looking at the contents page also provides some scope for excitement with intriguing titles such as “Finding God in the synapses: your own personal Jesus,” “Happiness is a cognitive workout,” and “Lies, damn lies – the prints are all over your cortex.” So, interesting content and a science writer with a sense of humour… sounds like my perfect book but in reality I’m afraid it fell slightly flat.

This is not to say that this is a bad read because it definitely isn’t and I guess it just depends what you’re looking for from the book. It’s chock-a-block with interesting facts and figures and I enjoyed reading about the number of studies that have been carried out in the name of neuroscience, bad or good depending on the answers it gave the researchers and in many cases, from the author’s personal (and often strong) opinion! One particularly mind-boggling and often controversial example is the area of religion when associated with the brain.

Basically, from a very young age, our surroundings and parental beliefs have a direct impact on what is hard-wired into the brain in much the same way that we learn the complexities of language. Having a large amount of serotonin (that happy hormone) in our brains affects the extent to which a person is spiritual and researchers have shown that actual spiritual experiences can be induced by increasing the brain’s natural supply of our own personal opiate system. One of my favourite experimental examples related to this is “The God Helmet.” This was a piece of apparatus developed by scientists Koren and Persinger to study events occurring when the temporal lobe of the brain was stimulated. Our author was the perfect test subject as she noted the feeling of a “presence,” when wearing the helmet. Persinger has confirmed that for several subjects “mystical experiences and altered states,” were reported but what does this mean for religion? Is it just because our temporal lobe has been stimulated that we are aware of the presence of God? Other scientists seem to think so and have quite a lot to say about religion: Boyer called it “a parasite on our cognitive apparatus,” and more recently the loud and proud atheist Richard Dawkins said it was “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Yikes, I may not be a religious person but harsh words, Mr Dawkins!

I think the above chapter on religion was probably my favourite point of the entire book as other chapters focused on economics, ethics and marketing which although easy to read became slightly dull and are not really my cup of tea. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this book as unfortunately I didn’t really find out anything I didn’t know already. Although some parts were humorous I did also feel that the author tended to get on her soap box and was rather close-minded when discussing a personal opinion of her own that she was convinced was correct/the only possible explanation. Saying that, her passion for the subject area cannot be faulted and may be a writing style that can be appreciated by a different reader.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox

Published November 21, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Our dark lady is leaving us next week; on the 7th of March, 1953 Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, London, wrote to Francis Crick at the Cavendish laboratories in Cambridge to say that as soon as his obstructive female colleague was gone from King’s, he, Crick, and James Watson, a young American working with Crick, could go full speed ahead with solving the structure of the DNA molecule that lies in every gene. Not long after, the pair announced to the world that they had discovered the secret of life. But could Crick and Watson have done it without the dark lady? In two years at King’s, Rosalind Franklin had made major contributions to the understanding of DNA. She established its existence in two forms and she worked out the position of the phosphorous atoms in its backbone. Most crucially, using X-ray techniques that may have contributed significantly to her later death from cancer at the tragically young age of 37, she had taken beautiful photographs of the patterns of DNA.

What did I think?:

Rosalind Franklin is unfortunately probably best known for not achieving the recognition she should have got in life for unravelling the secrets of DNA. Instead, two scientists called Francis Crick and James Watson boldly used parts of her work to find out the secrets for themselves and published their findings which led to them winning the Nobel Prize. Personally, I was aware of the dis-service that had been done to Franklin but did not realise until reading this book exactly how much her work had contributed to the unveiling of “the molecule of life.” The book tends not to focus too much on the early part of Rosalind’s life as it is when she becomes a scientist, the true nature of this independent, determined and highly intelligent woman is realised. However, a couple of things sprang to my attention from her early life. Firstly, a letter written by one of her relations describes the young Rosalind as:

“alarmingly clever – she spends all her time doing arithmetic for pleasure & invariably gets her sums right.”

Although the word “alarmingly” is probably meant as an endearment it resonates from a time when females were not expected to be clever as managing their household and pleasing their husbands was probably the best they could amount to. It is no wonder that Rosalind has become somewhat of a feminist icon. After all, being Jewish, female and a scientist in times which were not friendly to all three is a tremendous achievement. Being a bit radical also ran in her family as her Uncle Hugh, a pro-suffragist, attempted to attack Winston Churchill with a dog whip due to his opposition to women’s suffrage. Rosalind knew herself from the age of twelve that she wanted to become a scientist and certainly fit the criteria according to Einstein:

“a scientist makes science the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”

Rosalind Franklin (picture from mysciencebox.org)

She first began to make a difference during the war where she was employed by the British Coal Utilisation Research Association studying the porous nature of coal and the density of helium. Her work there led to coals being classified, predicting their potential for fuel and for the production of essential devices i.e. gas masks. In 1946, she extended her CV and broadened her skills by studying X-ray diffraction with the French scientist Jacques Mering, a technique that would prove crucial and valuable in her later work with DNA. It was during her next post with Kings College that she finally made her mark, discovering that there were two forms of DNA and that they were helical in structure. Indeed, her X ray photographs of the molecule were pronounced by J.D. Bernal to be amongst the most beautiful X ray photographs of any substance ever taken.

Enter Watson and Crick, who were currently working on producing a model of the structure of DNA but were having a few technical problems with discovering exactly where each bit went. Papers and photographs belonging to Franklin were given to Crick on the sly causing them to pronounce that they had discovered “the secret of life.” Shockingly, they then went on to publish their paper in the journal Nature in the spring of 1953 with only a short footnote regarding the “general knowledge” of Franklin’s contribution. Franklin’s paper did follow but due to the order of publishing, it seemed only support for Watson and Crick’s amazing discovery, rather than revealing who exactly had done all the legwork. Unpublished drafts of her papers revealed that it was she alone who had discovered the overall form of the molecule with the location of the phosphate groups on the outside. Rosalind went on to carry out brilliant work on the tobacco mosaic and polio virus but tragically succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1958 at just 37 years of age.

I found this book to be an absolutely fascinating read even if I did get carried away a bit at times with the injustice done to Rosalind Franklin and the tragic end to her life. She wasn’t particularly careful when using radiation and tended to just “get on with it,” neglecting to wear appropriate protective coverings or adhere to our now stringent safety requirements when dealing with such a hazardous substance. Could this have contributed to the development of her cancer? She was also a very interesting person, perhaps a bit prickly at first and difficult to get to know but she was immensely passionate about many things besides her beloved science – for example, travelling and climbing and was a fiercely loyal friend. For me, it was wonderful to read an interesting account of a woman that made such a difference even if it was sadly not recognised in her own lifetime.

Would I recommend it?

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine

Published October 3, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

A vehement dismantling of the latest pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes.

Sex-based discrimination is supposedly a relic of the distant past. Yet popular books, magazines, and even scientific articles increasingly defend continuing inequalities between the sexes by calling on immutable biological differences between the male and the female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education, Delusions of Gender rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. This book reveals the brain’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider “hardwired” is actually malleable, empowering us to break free of the supposed predestination of our sex chromosomes.

What did I think?:

In my other, non-blogging life, I work as a scientist and every so often you’ll see a review popping up on my blog about a non-fiction book I’ve read that has more than likely been science-y. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality and women’s rights so Delusions of Gender seemed like the perfect mix of science and feminism which encouraged me to pick it up. I found it to be a fascinating read which I learned a lot from and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between our two genders. The book is divided into short chapters with intriguing titles such as “Why You Should Cover Your Head with a Paper Bag if You Have A Secret You Don’t Want Your Wife to Find Out,” “Sex and Premature Speculation,” and “Gender Detectives.” With titles like these you may want to read this book already but let me assure you that the author backs up the humour in her writing with clear facts, possible theories and very strong evidence that lends a note of seriousness into why exactly we still have gender inequality in a modern, 21st century society.

You’d think we’d have come a long way in achieving more rights for women since say, the nineteenth century yet consider this point that the author makes in the introduction. An English clergyman called Thomas Gisborne wrote a manual called “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex,” and noted that things such as legislation, political economy and the conduct of government should be assigned to men as they have “the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intensive and continued application.” Whereas, females enjoy “powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.” Ladies, I hope you are extremely insulted right now. But then Fine encourages us to move forward 200 years and look at The Essential Difference written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist who states “the female brain is pre-dominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Hmm… sounds pretty much the same thing as what Gisborne was trying to say in the nineteenth century?

Throughout the book, Cordelia Fine investigates how different males and females really are. Are we all so hard-wired into our gender that there is no wiggle room in terms of qualities we should possess? Is it really a man’s world? Is it absolutely pointless for a woman to even consider a top level management job as it requires stereotypically more aggressive characteristics that for a woman is considered unattractive? I did enjoy the way that the author discredits work carried out by Baron-Cohen, and theories from the author of A Female Brain, Louann Brizendine that seem to want to put males and females in their own little boxes. For example, the assumption that a woman can use more areas of the brain than a man i.e. multi-tasking, was an experiment based on only 14 brains and the conclusions weren’t even statistically significant? In this way, a lot of experiments dealing with differences between the sexes have used just a few subjects, or made scientific “guesses,” depending on what their own stereotypical views were.

This is a brilliant and fascinating book, injected with a little bit of wit and sarcasm which I always appreciate in a non-fiction book and which I think is needed when dealing with this subject which can sometimes be a little bit touchy. I don’t think Baron-Cohen or Brizendine will be amongst her fans if they ever read it but I really enjoyed the way she picked apart neurosexism and shone a light upon the shadier areas of gender research. Oh, and you don’t need to be a scientist to read or enjoy this, it’s very accessible without being patronising.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery – Henry Marsh

Published September 27, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

What is it like to be a brain surgeon?

How does it feel to hold someone’s life in your hands, to cut into the stuff that creates thought, feeling and reason?

How do you live with the consequences of performing a potentially life-saving operation when it all goes wrong?

In neurosurgery, more than in any other branch of medicine, the doctor’s oath to ‘do no harm’ holds a bitter irony. Operations on the brain carry grave risks. Every day, Henry Marsh must make agonising decisions, often in the face of great urgency and uncertainty.

If you believe that brain surgery is a precise and exquisite craft, practised by calm and detached surgeons, this griping, brutally honest account will make you think again. With astonishing compassion and candour, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons reveals the fierce joy of operating, the profoundly moving triumphs, the harrowing disasters, the haunting regrets and the moments of black humour that characterise a brain surgeon’s life.

DO NO HARM is an unforgettable insight into the countless human dramas that take place in a busy modern hospital. Above all, it is a lesson in the need for hope when faced with life’s most difficult decisions.

What did I think?:

I was recommended this book by a little app I use on my phone called 60sec Books which is a fantastic way of getting a quick snippet of what a book is about in, you guessed it, 60 seconds! I’m so glad I read it, it has to be my favourite non-fiction book this year and was my first read for “Real Book” August. The reader gets a glimpse into the world of prominent neurosurgeon Henry Marsh who works in what is for me, the scariest area of medicine, brain surgery. In this job, you have to be on the ball as you are working with the most complex organ in the human body. One little mistake can completely ruin the life of a patient forever or lead to the patient’s death. Each short chapter is superbly titled with a Latin terminology to describe a disease state or medical process, for example – Chapter 1 – Pineocytoma, and then there is a short definition underneath – n. an uncommon, slow-growing tumour of the pineal gland. Each chapter often mentions a case from the initial diagnosis, through to treatment and the outcome. Marsh describes each case with incredible compassion and real interest and is brutally honest about the mistakes that he has made as a surgeon. This could be something done by him directly such as a delayed diagnosis or letting a more junior surgeon take up the operating tools leading to disaster, but one he takes full responsibility for himself, as the lead surgeon.

Each case is so interesting to read about and I enjoyed the black humour and self-depreciating style that Marsh employed from time to time, an attitude he often takes which is important for him to be able to get through the dark times. Indeed, some of the cases were so heart-breaking or overwhelming that I often had to stop and take a break between chapters, just to absorb it all before I carried on. I did have a little laugh when he got on his soapbox about NHS management and the way hospitals are run. I salute you Mr Marsh! More people need to speak out about this issue and I admire him for doing so. Don’t be put off by this book being a bit too science-y, I think that it’s written in such a way that it’s easily accessible to everyone, no matter what your science knowledge is. For me, it’s a beautiful, honest and intriguing look at the world of brain surgery and I’d like to thank Henry Marsh for allowing us to have a little peep into his world.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0