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45. More Quotes…

02 Nov

A further selection of quotes and short reviews of books which have been piling up by my bookshelf for weeks, their post-it notes peeking out from lines desperate to be recorded in this blog, flapping languidly at me every time I walked past them…

‘The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks’, Rebecca Skloot

At school, I was terrible at various subjects, from art to science. Since I am now brilliant at reading, I often try to counter those lacunae in my knowledge by reading about topics I know little to nothing about, and this book, on the woman who after her death inadvertently became the source for the majority of cancer research in the USA after her death, was a perfect example.

Some statistics and facts about the women whose cells were, unbeknownst to her family and with absolutely no financial compensation, or even acknowledgement within the scientific community, used for vital cancer research after her death:
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-50m tonnes of Henrietta Lacks’ cells have been produced in the 60 years since her death.
-Treatment in 1951 included a doctor who “…slipped a tube filled with radium inside -Henrietta’s cervix, and sewed it in place.”
-Cells were shipped cross-country, as “…pilots or stewards tucked them in heir shirt pockets to keep the cells at body temperature.”
-The cells could be grown at home following instructions from a magazine article.
-They also went up into orbit with the first human spaceflight.
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The book was not simply dry scientific history, but some beautifully written prose. The wonderfully named Skloot describes one lab whose head:
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“…wrongly believed that light could kill cell cultures, so his laboratory looked like the photo negative of a Ku Klux Klan rally, where technicians worked in long black robes, heads covered in black hoods with small slits cut for their eyes…”
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How important were Henrietta’s cells to scientific history?
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“… in 1953, a geneticist in Texas accidentally mixed the wrong liquid with HeLa and a few other cells, and it turned out to be a fortunate mistake. The chromosomes inside the cells swelled and spread out, and for the first time, scientists could see each of them clearly…”
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(This led to the first confirmation of there being 46 chromosomes in the human genome).
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More importantly, it is a book of social history even more than scientific: Henrietta came from a poor, black family, and the story oscillates between the 1950’s of Henrietta’s time to the modern day, and Skloot’s attempts to piece the story together from her descendants. The question of race is present throughout, as the author is told on a visit to the Lacks family:
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“You don’t act strange around me cause I’m Black. You’re not from around here.”

Going back in time, the social standing of her family is best summed up by this paragraph, describing the way her husband raised her children after her death from cancer:

“Henrietta’s children grew up hungry…She put latches and bolts on the refrigerator and cupboards doors to keep the children out between meals. They weren’t allowed ice in their water because it made noise…”

On the public’s fears of toying with DNA, Skloot tells us how one scientist scared the public by combining cells:
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“He caused near-pandemonium when he appeared in a BBC documentary saying that the eggs of man and ape  could now be joined to create a ‘mape’…'”
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History is as strong a part of the narrative as science. I never knew the origins of the KKK:
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“To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and creeped around at night, posing as spirits coming to infect black people with disease or steal them for research…”
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Finally, the main theme of the book is to what extent we have control over our bodies after we die, a far more complicated question than I had realised.
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“Science is not the highest value in society…I decide who gets my money after I die. It wouldnt harm me if I died and you gave my money to someone else… But replace the word money in that sentence with tissue, and you’ve got precisely the logic many people used to argue against giving donors any control over that tissue.”
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Buyology‘, Martin Lindstrom
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I had been looking forward to reading this since I first picked it up in a Japanese bookshop about four years ago. When I finally got around to it, unfortunately it proved a bit of a disappointment.
The science behind how adverts work, and why we buy what we buy: what could be more interesting? Sadly, ‘Buyology‘ was slightly confused: at times, Lindstrom claims ads contained everyday people, so that everyday people could relate to them, whilst at others, that high-end products employed high-class images so that people could aspire to them; at times, he claims that fear sells products, whilst at others that it puts people off. Worse, the entire volume often comes across, (ironically), as a vehicle of self-promotion, (‘Hey everyone, look at all of these big companies that employ my company for our scientific ad-analysing services!’). Malcolm Gladwell, he ain’t.
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Still, there were some great nuggets of facts and statistics:
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“12 times more British people have died from smoking then died in World War II…”
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“By the time we reach the age of 66, most of us will have seen approximately 2,000,000 television commercials. Time-wise, that’s the equivalent of watching eight hours of ads seven days a week for six years straight…”
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On families and routine:
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“In  families with predictable routines, children had fewer respiratory illnesses and better overall health, and they performed better in elementary school…”
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On branding:
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“Today more than 22,000 different colored Hello Kitty products are in circulation in Asia and throughout the world, including Hello Kitty pasta, Hello Kitty condoms, Hello Kitty navel rings, and Hello Kitty tooth caps, which (talk about branding) actually leave behind a Hello Kitty impression on every piece of food you chew…”
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.On perceptions:

“A Bang and Olufsen remote control, for example, would weigh perhaps half of what it does if it wasn’t stuffed with a completely useless wad of aluminum to make customers believe they’re holding something substantial, sturdy, and worthy of the high price…”

(This passage was especially relevant for me, who grew up in a home with a Bang and Olufsen TV, whose remote control I adored but which I was terrified of breaking, after hearing that a replacement costs more than many TV sets!)
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Finally, on the same subject of perceptions, my favourite fact of the entire book:
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“What about Duracell’s intriguing idea to design batteries shaped like bullets?… research showed that when men who replaced the normal batteries in their flashlights (a process which felt not unlike loading a gun) with the heavy bullet shaped ones were asked whether they thought the new batteries were more powerful than traditional ones, every single man answered yes…”
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The Collector Collector,Tibor Fischer
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Well, it shouldn’t be long before I’ve got through his entire back catalogue, but I discovered a few quotes jotted down from this intriguing tale by one of my new favourite authors, and thought I’d include it here, because Fischer sure has a way with words. He also has a way with ideas: who else could come up with the concept of writing a novel from the point of view of a millennia-old antique, commenting on all of the owners it has ever had, (thus making it the eponymous ‘collector collector’), and the fun it gets up to shape-shifting its way into various adventures.
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“Nothing is more frightening than no rules; people will cherish the worst rules as long as they can avoid the prospect of a sky that spits in their face for no reason…”
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“…Indeed, waitress-tormenting is one of the most despicable crimes; it is usually committed in the more expensive restaurants, but here Hayless is getting it for under a pound…”
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“…A teacher of English to foreign students: even worse. Someone whose only employable trait is having been born in a country where the language happens to be in demand”
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“The condemned man about to go out to the gallows doesn’t want to hear that everything’s old well-oiled…What we need is better lies…”
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Street Gang‘, Michael Davis
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I may have been spoiled by Gladwell’s treatment of more or less the same topic in ‘The Tipping Point‘, with his concision and ability to get at the heart of topics, but I was vaguely disappointed with this analysis of the birth of one of one of the most important TV programmes of all time, both to me and children and parents worldwide.
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Davis‘s history of Sesame Street starts with an incredibly depressing foreword depicting the death of Jim Henson, a very, very slow start with background biographies for dozens of pages. It ends as darkly as it had begun, with a Shakespearean tragedy of cancer sufferers. Not exactly what I was looking forward to reading.
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Between these extremes, there is some great trivia: did you know the Street was based on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In? Or that the German version wanted to include sex education, and kids saying ‘Scheiß’?!
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All in all, however, I came away from this book feeling that sometimes, seeing behind the scenes of your favorite art, (especially from childhood), can be disappointing: be it the knowledge that Narnia is a giant Christian metaphor, or that Lewis Carroll liked to take photos of naked children.
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Still, here are some of the stories I wanted to remember, and thus here they are reproduced for your (and my future) perusal…
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On how boring researchers and scientists almost destroyed the essence of The Street:
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“The production team had overridden the objections of researchers who had advised against mixing the Muppets with humans on the street. The scientists preferred there be a line between fantasy and reality…”
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On the resistance from teachers to kids, (often from underprivileged backgrounds), learning at home:
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“One man, presumably an educator…asked her what he was supposed to do with his lesson plans if children started coming to school already knowing letters and numbers…”
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Finally, there was a hilarious Political Correctness Gone Mad story of Elmo being scheduled to play a chicken on one of the  episodes. New director Dr.Valeria Lovelace halted production on the grounds that:
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“…the part of a chicken should only be played by a chicken.”
It was subsequently suggested that they “…air the piece as written and see how much mail we get from outraged chickens…”
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Posted by on November 2, 2012 in BOOKS

 

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