By Nick Lane
Popular science books work better when they have an enticing title. It is the unique selling point of the genre – over, say, journals. The reason why it is important is not only because we all judge books by their covers, but because it gives the author a touchstone. A good science author establishes a strong title and keeps it in his head while he writes his book, knowing that his reader will need something to cling on to in order to grasp the full implications of the book.
Such is the case with Power, Sex, Suicide. In a heartbeat, this excellent title elevates mitochondria from ordinary organelles responsible for energy production to dynamic and fascinating little characters with big boots. The real joy of this book is Lane’s enthusiasm. His writing may not be as fun as Matt Ridley’s, but his grasp of the importance of mitochondria in our past, present and future is unsurpassable. His book provides what has to be the most comprehensive study of mitochondria for the common reader. There are some complex theories here – and I certainly cannot claim to have understood the intricacies of every biochemical process outlined – but Lane is smart enough to keep the bigger picture in mind. His story always returns to the implications of the microbiology: what this oxidation means for the age process, or how modern humans are linked in history to bacteria, or even why there are two sexes.
Power, Sex, Suicide is the kind of book that makes you think while you read that you may not look at a book as important as it for some time. That’s a fallacy of course – it is just the achievement of a skilled writer – but it makes for an absorbing read nonetheless.