A conversation with Peter Schattner, author of Sex, Love and DNA.
Guiltless Reading: You spent your entire career in scientific research. What motivated you to shift gears to write a book for nonscientists?
Peter Schattner: First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with your "guiltless readers." Although my book is about science, it is not primarily intended for scientists; so having a platform to speak to nonscientists, such as the readers of your blog, is a treat for me.
Yes, writing for nonscientists has been a new and big challenge for me. But I wanted to take on this challenge, because I believe that there is a real need to help nonscientists realize that they are capable of understanding modern biology. Most people already realize that biology plays a key role in shaping our lives. However, they think that molecular biology and genetics are too complicated to understand without years of formal study. I wrote Sex, Love and DNA to demonstrate that not only the key concepts of these fields are accessible to all of us, but that learning about them can be fun and entertaining. In addition, the new discoveries of biology raise important ethical and moral challenges – in regards to genetically modified organisms, decisions around when it is acceptable to terminate pregnancies and a host of other issues. For society to address these questions successfully, it is critical that we educate ourselves as much as possible in the scientific concepts that underlie these controversial topics.
GR: You say that your objective was to make biology understandable and fun for people who don't generally like to read about science. How do you address such a challenging goal?
PS: First of all, I don't assume the reader has any previous scientific knowledge. Every new concept, however elementary, is described as it is encountered, so even readers with zero background in biology will have no problem following the book's explanations. Secondly, every concept is introduced and illustrated with a story about people or animals. Many of these stories are quite remarkable; some may be harder to believe than those one finds in science fiction. And in contrast to typical popular biology books that focus on medicine and disease, most of the stories in Sex, Love and DNA are about how biology affects healthy, normal people.
GR: Using stories to learn does sound appealing. Can you give some examples of the kind of stories in your book that illustrate the impact of biology on all of us?
PS. Sure. For example, readers will learn about a protein that is required by songbirds to sing properly – and they'll read about a human family in which this same protein is defective resulting the inability to talk properly. Another story describes how modifying a gene in a mouse enabled it to navigate mazes more quickly, while variants of the same gene in people have been linked to human intelligence. There are also stories describing how biology has shed light on questions of human ancestry and genealogy – ranging from the genetic studies that proved the Jewish origins of a South African tribe to the investigations that finally demonstrated what really happened to the Imperial Romanoff family during the Russian Revolution. Other stories include tales of people with extraordinary athletic abilities, individuals who have lived healthy lives beyond the age of 100, people who don't experience pain and much more.
GR. Well, I'm intrigued. Can you tell me where I can find out more?
PS: Glad you asked! Sex, Love and DNA is currently available in print from Amazon and in ebook format from Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks and Kobo.
About Peter SchattnerPeter Schattner is a scientist, educator and writer with over 30 years of research experience spanning diverse fields from molecular biology and genetics to biomedical instrumentation and theoretical physics. Sex, Love and DNA, his first book for nonscientists, has been acclaimed by critics and readers alike.
San Francisco Book Review describes it as "immensely absorbing and eye opening." According to The New York Journal of Books, you will be "so entertained, you do not realize you are learning." Bookviews reports that Sex, Love and DNA "will astound and entertain you far more than any science fiction might," while Kirkus Reviews calls it "a marvelous entrance for those ready to plunge into popular science."
About Sex, Love and DNA by Peter Schattner: Can the discoveries of 21st-century molecular biology answer age-old questions about the human experience? Can studying proteins and DNA help us understand how we make our choices in sex and love? How we communicate? Why some people are able to become top athletes, while others have the intellectual gifts to become outstanding scientists or artists? Where our emotions come from? Or why we age and die? In the past such questions have generally been reserved for philosophers or psychologists, and some will argue that this is as it should be. Yet we are biological animals, and by studying biology, and especially the biology of cells and proteins and DNA, we can learn a lot about what it means to be human.
"Sex, Love and DNA" describes how genetics and the environment affect our cells and thereby shape our lives. Every concept in the book, however elementary, is explained in a way that is understandable without any previous knowledge of biology or genetics. But don’t worry; Sex, Love and DNA isn't a textbook. You’ll discover biology through stories: stories of people who don’t feel pain because of rare genetic variants, and children whose DNA enables them to perform unusual feats of strength. Individuals whose genes have given them healthy lives past the age of 100, and people who can't speak or read simply because they lack certain proteins. In short, you'll share the excitement the scientific community is experiencing as it addresses perhaps the greatest intellectual challenge of all – the challenge that Socrates described more than two thousand years ago as “to know thyself.”