Book Review: The Spark of Life by Frances Ashcroft

While most books are those I’ve bought or requested as gifts for birthday or Christmas, this was one that was lent to me by a friend at church. Their premise was that it was recommended to them by an atheist friend of theirs who had said it was a marvelous book about reductionism, showing that there was nothing more to life than electricity. I confess I’d not heard of the book before so it seemed reasonable to look at what some others had said about it. When I read a few other reviews, the above synopsis seemed quite a long way from what the truth.

My friend asked for my thoughts on the book, and while I hold to some views on the matter of reductionism, it might well be unfair to apply them to Ashcroft’s work if that was not her aim. So the only way forward, it seems, is to press on and read the book itself.

The subtitle, ‘Electricity in the Human Body’, gives a flavour of what’s to come. Ashcroft opens by diving into the deep end by talking of K(ATP) ion channels which rather shot over my head. I think that’s the intention. Returning to the introduction after having finished the book it makes a lot more sense, so one can see how much we’ve gone through.

The heart of the book is Ashcrofts own passion: ion channels. But what are they? I’d never come across them, though you’re probably less ignorant than I. So it was for this reader a journey of discovery. In short, they are holes in the membranes of cells. i.e. they’re really really really small. They are holes that act sort of like valves, allowing the flow of ions in and out of cells. The upshot is that miniscule electrical balances (carried by the ions) are created inside and outside of the cells. This is the electricity of the human body that is referred to in the subtitle.

With this as our firm grounding, we can then go off exploring various aspects of the human body. I would imagine that everyone knows that nerves operate by electrical impulses. That much is GCSE level science. But how do these impulses operate and how do we know? These are the questions that Ashcroft sets about answering in a lively and engaging manner.

The book is full of fascinating vignettes, such as the details of how synapses operate, how a heart beats and why some goats go incredibly rigid when frightened. Possibly the most disturbing was the chapter on neurotoxins which I admit made me feel a little numb as I read it, though it hasn’t yet put me off wanting to try fugu sometime.

Yet what of this claim reductionism alluded to above? As I read, greatly enjoying the book, it simply wasn’t there. All I could find where a couple of disparate sentences towards the back of the book, which were neither justified nor expanded upon. The book would not have suffered in the least by their omission. So it is my view that the friend of my friend was perhaps engaging in an exercise in eisegesis, reading their pre-existing thoughts into a work which are not expressed by that work. Let us say no more about it, then, and get back to this wonderful work of science.

We get a brief overview of electrical activity in the brain, though as with any popular-level take on neuroscience, there is a fair admission that we simply don’t understand the details of how the mind works. This does make it a weaker chapter than the rest, though those who are interested in the workings of the brain (often worked out when things go wrong) will be pleased to see the mention of Phineas Gage. If this subject piques your interest, then I would suggest following up with The Emperor’s New Mind and in particular A User’s Guide To The Brain.

The final chapter examines the effects of electricity upon the human body, as opposed to that generated from within. Not wholly unlike the chapter on neurotoxins, this makes for uncomfortable reading in places. As someone who opposes the death penalty, it was most disturbing to read of the electric chair’s mechanism for bringing death. Yet the same chapter also tells of how a defibrillator works (hint: not how you may think if you watch a lot of fiction on tv).

With the tour over, what can we say in conclusion? It’s a captivating book, giving insight where previously this reader was blind. It is written plainly yet in such a way as to draw the reader along and infuse them with some element of the enthusiasm and passion that is evident in Frances Ashcroft. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

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