352 pages, b/w illustrations
We are all familiar with the idea that machines are powered by electricity, but perhaps not so aware that this is also true for ourselves. The Spark of Life is a spectacular account of the body electric, showing how, from before conception to the last breath we draw, electrical signals in our cells are essential to everything we think and do. These signals are produced by some amazing proteins that sit at the forefront of current scientific research – the ion channels. They are found in every cell in Earth and they govern every aspect of our lives, from consciousness to sexual attraction, fighting infection, our ability to see and hear, and the beating of our hearts. Ion channels are truly the 'spark of life'.
Award-winning physiologist Frances Ashcroft weaves real-life stories with the latest scientific findings to explain the fundamental role of ion channels in our bodies. What happens when you have a heart attack? Why does an electric eel not shock itself? Can someone really die of fright? Why does Viagra turn the world blue? How do cocaine, LSD and morphine work? Why do chilli peppers taste hot? How do vampire bats sense their prey? Was Mary Shelley right when she inferred that electricity is the 'Spark of Life?
Frances Ashcroft explains all this and more with wit and clarity. She introduces a cast of extraordinary personalities whose work has charted the links between molecule and mind over the centuries. She recounts the scientific detective stories involved in the development of our ideas about animal electricity, and shows how these are intimately entwined with our understanding of electricity itself. And she describes how the latest advances have led to the identification, and in some cases the cure, of a new class of disease. Anyone who has ever wondered about what makes us human will find The Spark of Life a revelation.
"A rare gift for making difficult subjects accessible and fascinating [...] A wonderful book"
- Bill Bryson
"Ashcroft achieves the sort of rich simplicity most science writers can only dream about [...] this book carries the eponymous spark of life"
- Sunday Telegraph
"She communicates complex science with engaging passion and eloquence"
- Helen Dunmore, Observer
"Compelling and very readable, an excellent writer"
"Riveting [...] she has a stock of good tales"
- New Scientist, selected as one of the Ten Books to look out for in 2012
"Lively, conversational prose, refreshingly accessible to any lay reader [...] a positively charged little book"
- Daily Telegraph
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Frances Ashcroft is Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford. She is also Director of OXION, a consortium of scientists studying ion channels, the heroes of this book. Her scientific research focuses on how a rise in your blood sugar level stimulates the release of insulin and what why this process goes wrong in diabetes. She has won many prizes for her research, most recently the L'Oreal/UNESCO 2012 Women in Science award. Her first book for the general reader was Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival.