Monthly Archives: November 2012

Films I watched from June to November 2012

Here are all the movies I’ve watched recently, summarised neatly into six words.
  1. Fight Club — change your life via schizophrenic hallucination
  2. Ice Age 4 — terrible pirate movie for inattentive brats
  3. Madagascar 3 — another adorable urban/rural jungle adventure
  4. Puss In Boots — respectable prequel to Shrek without Shrek
  5. The Secret — law of attraction: thoughts become reality

Book: Over-schooled but Under-educated

Unlike the misleadingly distressed title font, this book isn’t rebellious at all.

Strangely, this book is a moderately flattering history of schools.
310 pages, ★★★

Over-schooled but Under-educated isn’t so much a critique, or even a blueprint, as a history of schooling. It reads like a selection of meandering essays about when schools were built, by whom, and for what purpose—basically, by churches in the 19th century to handle the delinquent poor; and later by the new, self-made middle-class as an attempt to push their children out of skilled labour and into the aristocracy. Over-schooled but Under-educated thus neglects its “schools need reform” thesis for six chapters! In the introduction, the author even writes, “you can skim-read chapters 5 and 6 to read chapter 7 properly, which is the crux of my argument”.

This book’s points are largely obvious. Schools need reform; teachers should let students learn by themselves; standardised tests set precedents more than they measure a student’s existing ability; and the family environment (that’s Pierre Bourdieu’s “Social Capital”) accounts for a greater proportion of a child’s education than does the experience of that child’s teacher. As a teacher, I feel like I knew all this already.

I was expecting something revolutionary from this book. The distressed title font emanates undertones of strength, grunge and rebellion, but none of this was to be found. Instead, it’s written like a collection social sciences essays, and I was thus disappointed.

That said, Over-schooled but Under-educated was worth reading. The most constructive part was the chapter on Finland’s model of education, from which all Western countries, supposedly, can learn.

My own teacher training will take precedent over any other books that I read on education. At this stage, I can agree with the role of a teacher being a “guide on the side”, not a “sage on the stage”, but when my Diploma of Education starts in February, even this view will be up for debate. ★★★

Book: Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun
Sun imagery is everywhere if you look for it.

Epic cross-section of all of human culture. Fact-dense.
680 pages, ★★★★★

It’s so hot in Australia right now. The sun melted my chocolate yesterday. Today, my trusty iPod displayed the word “Temperature” instead of a map, before promptly shutting itself down in the car.

iphone-warning
It’s 34°C in Australia, and even hotter in the car. I’m Chasing the Sun.

Chasing the Sun was thus a very apt book choice. It dances through science, but weaves in a lot of culture as well. British doors have sunrise-shaped windows. The Statue of Liberty wears a sun-shaped hat. Images as diverse as Jesus, Charlie Chaplin and Chairman Mao have all personified the sun in some way to imply power (be it spiritual, comical or political). Twenty countries currently have suns in their flags, and even the swastika was originally a line-drawn representation of the sun! According to Google Music, 2,500 copyrighted songs have been written about the sun (how many can you think of?), and nearly 500 trademarks feature the sun in their logo. The sun permeates our lives in ways that we are seldom aware.

This book is therefore relevant to everyone.

Like the sun itself, Chasing the Sun is dense. Reading it, I felt like one of the zillions of photons that takes 150,000 years to permeate the sun’s dense core, before finally reaching the surface (i.e. finishing the book) and zooming out at the speed of light. I read my next book very fast.

Author Richard Cohen is loaded with theories, such as Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Daisy World, the evolution of ancient calendar systems, and natural therapies involving tomatoes (which protect against sunburn but get sunburned easily themselves) and TB (which was alleviated somewhat by sunlight exposure). Best of all, he touches on the theory that solar maxima (peaks in the natural fluctuation of our sun’s intensity) coincide with peaks of ‘hot-headed’ human activity. Certainly, the upheavals of 1905, 1917, 1948 and 1989 coincided with solar maxima. Coincidence, perhaps?

Richard Cohen’s work is in the same category as Bill Bryson, but is much more fact-laden. On one occasion, (on page 528) he even corrects Bill Bryson’s math! He balances science and culture in a way only paralleled by Arnold Taylor’s The Dance of Air & Sea. This book took 8 years to write, involved research trips to 17 countries and includes input from dozens of world-leading academics. Don’t let this much wisdom pass you by. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★

Green tea: Chinese Sencha

Chinese Sencha

Tastes like burned raspberries. Nothing like Sencha at all.
Green tea » Japanese » Sun-grown, ★★
Also known as: 中国煎茶 or, misleadingly, ‘Sencha’

This tea is a (cheaper) Chinese version of the Japanese classic, Sencha.

Japanese Sencha is wonderful. I gave it five stars and described it as, “Light, refreshing and minty-cool.” Unfortunately, this Chinese imitation is incomparable with the real deal.

First, the leaf is too yellow. It looks more like it’s been roasted than steamed. This is backed up by the lack of a light, vegetal flavour when you drink it—instead, I get a thick, smooth, berry flavour in my mouth. It’s drinkable, but it’s not Sencha.

Secondly, this tea has unpleasant burned undertones. This may have arisen during the steaming process, when the tiniest leaves (which are actually just powder) fall through and touch something hot. Dust from inside the steamer might then have been swept into the tea.

I brewed this tea at 66 °C and it still tasted too much of tannin. I didn’t enjoy this tea, but I did learn the importance of terroir by drinking it. I love Sencha, and you probably will too, as long as you get the real deal from Japan. Never buy Chinese Sencha. ★★

 

Book: Lettering & Type: creating letters & designing typefaces

Lettering & Type: creating letters & designing typefaces
My edition says, “A guide to letterforms” along the bottom, which is an accurate description, rather than “A design handbook”, an erroneous description, which is written along the bottom of this edition.

This is what I was looking for when I picked Color Management.
130 pages, ★★★★

Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, which inspired the beautifully-designed fonts on the Lisa computer. In fact, his fascination with finessing fine details was manifested in all the Apple products he helped to design—including the famous “we spent six weeks deciding how round the corners should be [on the Apple IIe]” and “we spent months finding the right friction coefficient [for the MacBook Pro trackpad]”. I admire his perfectionist streak, and wanted to learn something about lettering myself.

Color Management focussed solely on color, layout and design—and was badly written. Lettering & Type, however, gets the balance of text and examples just right: on each double-spread, one page is filled with prose, while each opposing page is dedicated to graphic examples. (I even suggested this balance in my review of Color Management).

I learned that typeface design is a very fine art. Within the confines of dozens of rules of typeface aesthetics, we have to craft the individual letters, ensuring unity of stroke width and spacing throughout the typeset. We then have to adjust the kerning (spacing) of character each combination and design ligatures (conjoined letters like ӕ, fi and ij) when necessary. We have to examine the font in paragraph form, and ensure there’s an average ‘colour’ throughout the text, making final adjustments as necessary. For the most professional effects, we have to re-jiggle all the parameters in the first step whenever we make the font larger or smaller (you can see this by examining the fonts in Newsweek magazine very closely). Many large fonts look awful small, and vice versa.

Design buffs should read this, as should anyone who appreciates, or aspires to appreciate, the sheer beauty in life’s tiny, tiny details. ★★★★

Black tea: Earl Grey

Earl Grey

Fragrant and special. Do not consume daily.
Black tea* » Indian** » Ceylon teas (Sri Lanka), ★★★

Earl Grey is a Sri Lankan (Ceylon) tea blended with highly-fragrant bergamot oil.

The blending process is crucial to the final taste, and every tea manufacturer will blend their Earl Grey differently. This blend, from T2 in Australia, is particularly pungent.

Unfortunately, bergamot oil is slightly toxic. Studies have shown that it interferes with any medicines you might be taking, and makes your skin blush and sunburn more easily. Check this example from Wikipedia:

In one case study, a patient who consumed four litres of Earl Grey tea per day reported muscle cramps, which were attributed to the function of the bergapten in bergamot oil as a potassium channel blocker. The symptoms subsided upon reducing his consumption of Earl Grey tea to one litre per day.

I thus remove two stars. Drink it only occasionally.

That said, Earl Grey pairs well with either milk (best in winter) or a slice of lemon (very refreshing in summer). It suits traditional, British tea/garden party in summer, and ices well, too!

I’m don’t usually support adulterated tea (see my reviews of Gorgeous Geisha or Ginger Baimudan) but I do like Earl Grey. This is one of few tea-innovations that, taste-wise, the West should be proud of—even if it isn’t good for your health. ★★★

* It’s technically not a Scented Tea because the fragrances have been blended with the leaf and not infused.

** The “Indian” branch of my Tea Types 2012 chart represents teas from the Indian subcontinent (of which Sri Lanka and three Indian regions are all sub-categories). It’s geographically rational, but politically wrong. I do this because tea trees don’t care about politics.

Book: An Open Heart

An Open Heart
Hello. Up-close and personal speeches from the Man Himself.

Classic Dalai Lama speeches. Buddhism on Earth.
191 pages, ★★★★★

The Dalai Lama has the following of a rock star. The book begins with a scene of the Dalai Lama giving addressing 3,000 followers in New York City. The book explains the fundamentals of Buddhism.

I love this book for its thick, soft, sepia-tinted pages, and its large, readable font. This book looks as close to an ancient Tibetan prayer-sheet as a mass-production publishing house can make it.

I also love this book for its secular, practical simplicity. This book is Buddhism on Earth, not Buddhism in Heaven.

Perfectly suited for a crowd of multicultural, metropolitan New Yorkers. ★★★★★

Book: The Dance of Air & Sea

The Dance of Air & Sea
Only a book this good deserves Helvetica (probably the most beautiful font).

Beautiful. Thematically, like Nocturne for the oceans. Stylistically unparalleled.
288 pages, ★★★★★

It’s a pleasure to read, “we’re all super-interconnected” in a climatology book, especially when most other books are clinging to Al Gore’s domesday-and-guilt formula. Cool It! avoided that spin very successfully, but even that [four-star] book lacked the depth of this one. The Dance of Air & Sea excels in its field: not only is it rational and well-referenced, but it’s also interlaced with stories, history and wisdom. This book is full of stories that other people will be interested to hear.

The Dance of Air & Sea is far more knowledge-rich than its moon-based counterpart, Nocturne. This book’s author, Arnold H. Taylor, has been an oceanography professor for 30 years at Plymouth Marine Laboratory—arguably the best place in the world for ocean research—and is thus perfectly suited to write this book. He is a well-read, high-level academic, which makes every sentence interesting either culturally or scientifically. Reading this, I made a lot of notes.

Some interesting snippets from this book include:

Page 32: containers of floating, plastic toys were spilled into the ocean and tracked by satellite to monitor ocean currents

Page 58: trawler-fishing is a double-edged sword: predators are harmed more than prey, allowing the prey population (usually the stuff we eat) to grow stronger in the long-term.

Page 100: oceanic chlorophyll cools the oceans by up to 1°C. Lose the chlorophyll, and the ocean warms up!

Page 130: oceans are remarkably interconnected: when there’s high pressure in the Pacific Ocean or the Azores, for example, we can expect low pressure in the Indian Ocean or in Iceland at the same time—pressures behave rather like a giant, atmospheric see-saw.

And much more…

Readers who enjoy Bill Bryson and Stephen Fry will love this book: it goes much further academically, but retains the relaxed, knowledge-rich tone that both Bryson and Fry also possess. Definitely five stars for this book. Now, I want to find a book like this about Chemistry. ★★★★★

Book: White Tiger

White Tiger
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008

Simple, funny, ironic portrait of rural India.
318 pages, ★★★★

White Tiger is a novel set in modern-day rural India. Protagonist Balram Halwai narrates the story as a series of rambling, off-topic letters to former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (the reason for which, other than for humor’s sake, is never made clear). His letters are fully-loaded with irony and cute mistakes.

White Tiger begins with a letter addressed to, “the freedom-loving people of China”. On page 28, the author introduces rural India (a.k.a. the “Darkness”), where, ironically, the “[daily] buses are never late, at least not by more than an hour or two”. On page 73-74, the author shows us his local bar menu, which is ironically calculated so that two half-drinks are cheaper than one whole. On page 126, his description and ironic analysis of the social effects of Murder Weekly Magazine surprises us: “it is when your people start reading Ghandi and Buddha that you should be worried, Mr Premier”. On page 225, we learn how the Indian poor aspire to look rich (fat and white), and, ironically, how the Indian rich aspire to look poor (dark and skinny). Inbreeding is mocked with the use of the terms “cousin-sister” (page 28) and “sister-fucker” (page 34) throughout. Comically, the author’s letter-writing etiquette also dwindles: by page 45, the author addresses the Premier erroneously as, Mr Jiabao, and begins his third letter with the opening line, “So.” Irony and wit prevail.

The story was less important to me than the description of rural India. We could read deeper meaning into White Tiger (about the Indian caste system, about China-India relations, about poverty, development, Westernisation, morality, or justice, etc.), but I feel that would be unnecessary. Instead, just enjoy the vivid description in White Tiger: that earns four stars in itself. ★★★★

Book: Whackademia

Whackademia: An insider's account of the troubled university
The title and subtitle together is an anagram of, “KIDDISH WANNABE AUTHOR FERMENTS REVOLUTION. SAUCY DICE, Act I.” How apt.

Sooooo predictable with added juvenile cynicism and pranks. Yes, pranks.
239 pages, ★

Too mechanical? Yep. Too expensive? Yes. Not what the prospectus promised? You got it. Too market-orientated? Yes. Too market-irrelevant? That, too. Academics feel overworked and students feel neglected? Absolutely right.

Without reading this book, you can guess all the criticisms of higher education that he’s going to make.

Two third of this book is about complaining. Yes, many people don’t like their jobs, but only a small fraction go about writing a book about it. This author didn’t just do that: he gathered rants (yes, they’re rants) from 60 education workers and pasted them into his Whackademia scrapbook. The result is unhealthy.

Rants range from the banal to the absurd. A tearful professor details how she is inundated with work: “I get emails at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning!” To this, I reply: So? You don’t have to reply to them at 3 or 4 in the morning! Do that in your “email time” instead, be it 9am, 4:30pm or on the morning train. That’s the beauty of email.

I noticed how Stephen Fry only ever mocks himself: his appearance, his weight, his smoking habit, his lack of dancing ability, and his opinions of Cambridge people (after all, he is one of them!) In Whackademia, Richard Hil does the opposite of Stephen Fry: he criticises everything around him, wittily, assuming that only he is right. I don’t like that.

The final third of the book opens with, “Enough complaint, now what?” Here, the author squanders the opportunity to save his whiny reputation by telling teachers and administrators to pull pranks on their employers. Yes, pranks.

On the one hand, he describes universities as stubborn and delinquent, just like the student body they supposedly nourish:

“Andrew observed that the universities appeared self-absorbed and resistant to change—a bit like recidivist juvenile offenders. To break this apparent recalcitrance, Andrew called for a ‘modern parnership’ between business and the university sector.”

Yet, on the other hand, his solutions are mostly from the Anarchist’s Cookbook:

Never sign off on critical reports;

If you are on video link, turn on the ‘mute’ button.

Never admit to screw-ups, cock-ups, student complaints…

Keep adding to and subtracting from your workload documents over time as, over time, this will exhaust the apparatchiks.

Claim depression, stress, anxiety disorders, backaches, drug and alcohol problems resulting from excessive workload.

If the author’s being sarcastic here, then this book nothing more than a useless collection of 60 rants. If he’s not being sarcastic, then he’s caving in to the same stubborn, juvenile behavour that he spent two-thirds of his book criticising; and doesn’t deserve any of my jameskennedybeijing stars at all. Conclusion: just love your job. Never publish rants, and never read them either. ★

Book: The Fry Chronicles

The Fry Chronicles
Adult Stephen Fry. This book is the sequel to Moab Is My Washpot.

Witty and well-written but largely forgettable.
464 pages, ★★★★

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry details his adult life, starting from his leaving prison at age 20. It starts exactly where his last book, Moab Is My Washpot, finished. Within just a few pages, Fry matriculates at Queen’s College, Cambridge University, where he thrives academically and finds a passion for acting.

I’m young, so I’ve only known Fry for his most recent TV work (I am a fan of QI, and am happy that it’s all on YouTube for free). His acting career is something to which I really can’t relate (hence my subtitle—’forgettable’). I’m sure that actors, or avid theatre-goers could find this book much more interesting than I did.

For me, Fry’s writings about Cambridge University were the most interesting. While most of his writing is respectful and upbeat, he does indulge in a page-long witty rant about “Cambridge people”, as I call them, on page 111, starting with sarcasm:

“…Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week. Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne. Blazers and flannels, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth.”

The following paragraph juxtaposes that paragraph beautifully:

“Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough. After all, look at them now. They are all in their fifties some of them on their third, forth or fifth marriage. Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. Drugs addicts or recovering drug addicts. Their wrinkles, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful and elastic smiles that once lit them. Their lives have been a ruin and a waste. All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride or pleasure. They took that job in the city, that job with merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama Company, publishing company, any company. The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one. In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun. Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed, disappointed that they want to kill themselves. Once they laughed and seduced or were seduced, on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.”

He adds a quick note to reassure the readers that his rant is over, and gets his writing style promptly back on track. I love it.

Thankfully, in this book, there’s no graphic sex. In fact, Fry takes pride in being celibate for many years straight (excuse the pun). It’s a more comfortable read than Moab Is My Washpot, and more witty, too. I give this book four stars, even if the only memorable part for me was his thoughts on stereotypical “Cambridge people”. ★★★★

Book: The Freemasons

The Freemasons

Accidental trade union turned culty turned unpopular.
340 pages, ★★★

Freemasonry emerged by accident. Rough-masons worked rough (harder) stone, while free-masons worked free (softer) stone. Often commissioned by monarchs, Freemasons worked harder and earned more money than non-freemasons, and since they worked for many years, exclusively for the monarch, they became a very closely-knit group.

Freemasonry later developed into the élite fraternity. Many great explorers and tycoons were Freemasons. Now, however, Freemasonry is in decline, and is even greeted with suspicion and ridicule by non-members.

This book discusses some famous members. We learn about John Wilkes, William Dodd and Louis d’Éon, none of whose stories would be at all interesting if they weren’t Freemasons. Their stories are not scandalous—and sometimes not even interesting—despite this book describing them as such. This book dispels the myths surrounding Freemasonry by proving that they’re actually incredibly boring cult.

Freemasonry was never as intimidating as its reputation would suggest. In fact, the descriptions in this book rank it level with Cambridge University in terms of exclusivity and eccentricity (two defining aspects of a cult).

I don’t recommend reading this book. It was less informative than Cults (see my review here), and more of a chore, too. All this book taught me is that Freemasonry is incredibly dull—a fact so surprising that I award this book very generously with three stars. ★★★

Book: Tree of Codes

Tree of Codes
Words have been cut out.

Less of a book than a philosophical statement. Art.

Jonathan Safran Foer took his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, and cut words out of the paper to reveal a new story.

Grammar is largely neglected, though, making the story mostly unintelligible. Tree of Codes more closely resembles confusing poetry than a novel.

Confused readers will find comfort in the explanatory section on page 139. (This book is all about page 139.) Here, Jonathan Safran Foer reminds us that while Tree of Codes was cut from The Street of Crocodiles

“…there must have existed some yet larger book from which The Street of Crocodiles was taken. It is from this imagined larger book, the ultimate book, that every word ever written, spoken or thought it exhumed.” — page 139.

So there.

The production process is also worthy of admiration.

Tip: read one page at a time.

Book: The Trouble with Physics

The Trouble With Physics The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
Available in black, magnolia, blue or an elegantly redesigned white edition.

An inconclusive book on an inconclusive subject.
416 pages, ★

Physics is dead. Or maybe it’s just finished. According to the Trouble with Physics, no significant progress has been made towards a ‘grand unifying theory’ since the 1980s. Unfortunately, that was when the author started his physics career.

Theories are developed that fit the available evidence at the time. According to Popper, “a theory is only good until it’s falsified”, and according to Einstein, “a theory should be as simple as it can possibly be, but no simpler”. Theories thus tend to be simple (at least in retrospect) and short-lived.

The trouble with physics comes with the most recent theory, String Theory. It’s neither simple nor short-lived. In fact, it’s so complicated that most physicists don’t fully understand it (or that’s what they claim), and because it can never be proven or disproven, it is effectively permanent. Author Lee Smolin talks about the quasi-religious following surrounding String Theory and its excessive derision of critics. To me, the String Theory lobby sounds about as entrenched as that of climate change, or of intelligent design. If that’s the case, then physics is definitely finished.

As a newcomer to physics, I learned a lot of theory from this book. I learned about General Relativity, Quantum Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity, Technicolor, Twistor Theory and MSSM theory; and the discoveries made by Aristotle, Kepler, Galileo, de Sitter, Einstein, Kelvin, Eddington, Popper and many, many more. Despite the level of detail in this book, math is used only sparingly—which is why I chose this book over others.

The Trouble With Physics is suitable for non-physicists who want to reassure themselves that they made the right career choice. In just 416 pages, The Trouble with Physics provides enough background information to understand passing conversations with physicists, and to understand almost all Big Bang Theory jokes. This book is the most readable in its category. 

Book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
A serious cover suits this serious book. (The edition with a colourful cover gives you the false impression that this book is somehow ‘fun’).

Pleasantly optimistic but overly simplistic.
384 pages, ★★★

If only all the world’s energy needs and its climate worries could be solved by one author with a laptop. That’s what this book attempts to do. Even an optimist would struggle to believe that. It takes the collective action of many people’s mindsets and lifestyles, along with concerted action by business and governments to manage climatic change and build a reliable supply of renewable energy. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air simply aims too high.

This book analyses, then over-analyses and extrapolates wildly. (I forgive the author, as it is very difficult to do anything in the field of climate policy without sounding alarmist—although Bjørn Lomborg was one of few authors to do that successfully.) The fundamental data is abundant and extremely useful for policy-makers. The analysis is a little simplistic, and the numerical extrapolations are not to be believed at all. Of course it would be marvellous for the UK to become energy-independent on solar, wind and biomass by 2050, but investors won’t be encouraged by these hasty, lofty calculations. Gut instinct is enough.

Apart from the opportunities posed by building a giant dam across the Severn Estuary (a project probably beyond Britain’s capability right now), the reality is that Britain isn’t particularly well-suited to energy production. The UK has no more coal, no more gas, and no extreme weather that would make solar power or wind turbines highly profitable (try the Sahara or northern Europe for that). Perhaps Britain should focus on other industries (like a high-voltage, intercontinental direct current electric grid) and import energy instead?

The dodgy references worry me. They’re all internet-based and are written bewilderingly as a series of short URLs (like bit.ly/4dgf82). I know from experience that there’s enough material on Google to support basically any thesis—or even a pair of contradicting theses.

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is a collection of good ideas—but take the quantified results with a pinch of salt. Three stars for optimism and for effort. This book isn’t the magic bullet it appears to be. ★★★

Book: Molecular Biology of the Cell (Alberts’)

Molecular Biology of the Cell
Each edition changes colour. Fifth edition is red. Fourth edition is grey.

The KitchenAid of biology. All other biology textbooks are just accessories.
1392 pages, ★★★★★

Molecular Biology of the Cell, or “Alberts'”, as it’s known colloquially, is the cornerstone of a university education in biology. All biology undergraduates will have seen it, most of them will buy it, yet none of them will actually read it. They should.

Alberts’ details every aspect of cell biology, and delves deeply into physiology, neurology and pharmacology as well—rendering some undergraduate textbooks in those fields redundant.

Illustrations are crisp, clear and never excessive. Colour is used for clarity but not for aesthetics. The text is prose-heavy and reads like a story so it can be read cover-to-cover quite comfortably (albeit slowly). And that’s exactly what students should do.

Many students will use Alberts when they need to learn about something quickly, such as, “what shape is a mitochondria?”, “what does kinesin do?”, or “in what order does the electron transfer chain take place?” If you haven’t read this book from cover-to-cover already, then finding those answers is going to take much longer than you think. Alberts is not a reference book—it’s a comprehensive background story. Quick answers can be found on Google, but genuine understanding comes from a cover-to-cover reading of Alberts. ★★★★★