Viking, £18.99. Order for £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Anatomies, By Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Wednesday 03 April 2013
Many people have experienced the odd feeling that although we are our body's "owner-operator", as Hugh Aldersey-Williams puts it, the body is actually a strange appendage: not really us at all, more like one of our plug-ins – a car or computer. Cultures have veered wildly in their attitude to the body. Aldersey-Williams, an excellent, versatile science writer, pitches his book at just the right level of amused and curious enquiry.
Anatomies – a follow-up to Periodic Tales, which managed to turn the chemical elements into companionable creatures – is an amiable ramble through the oddities of the body. There is much about dissection and the dubious means by which cadavers were once procured for the process. Aldersey-Williams goes to Oxford University's Medical Science Teaching Centre to see how it's done these days. Internally, it seems, we are as variable as we are externally.
Aldersey-Williams is equally happy to talk about painting and the gamut of science, and anatomy is the perfect territory, because artists such as Leonardo have been important in its depiction. He writes brilliantly about Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.
In Aldersey-Williams's account, it is striking that the organs we actually experience – ears, eyes, hands, brain, sex – excite greater interest than those, such as the kidneys, that work away unnoticed. Even the heart is hardly ever noticed by us. Aldersey-Williams deftly compares its plumbing to the Underground – think of a diagram of the Camden Town tunnels and you've got it.
Aldersey-Williams dissects some pig's eyeballs at home to probe the mysteries of the eye. He is utterly unsqeamish and wise on ancient mysteries; on gender, he reminds us that all of us possess both the male hormone testosterone and the female oestrogen – it's just a matter of relative concentrations. Some conundrums, however, remain. The default human is female, so males are modified females; in which case why is the clitoris always described as a reduced penis?
There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turningTV
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 All Blacks Aaron Cruden misses New Zealand flight after drinking session, has brilliant excuse
- 2 Kim Kardashian 'nude photos' leaked on 4chan weeks after Jennifer Lawrence scandal
- 3 'F*ck it, I quit': TV reporter Charlo Greene quits live on air in spectacular fashion
- 4 Alicia Keys leaks nude photo 'to create a kinder and more peaceful world'
- 5 Clothes store Joy angers mental health campaigners with Twitter exchange on bipolar disorders
Scotland could still declare independence – even without referendum, says Alex Salmond
Scottish referendum results: Cross-party consensus collapses amid Tory-Labour spat on the 'English question'
Hilary Mantel 'should be investigated by police' over Margaret Thatcher assassination story, says Lord Bell
Scottish independence: David Cameron is becoming the 'George Bush of Britain'
Plebgate MP Andrew Mitchell called officer a 'little s**t', claim court documents 'exposing ex-Chief Whip's 'record of abusing police'
Archbishop of Canterbury admits doubts about existence of God