The Vital Question – Nick Lane

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(Read Between (28/12/16 – 26/01/17)

I decided to give this book the privilege of being my first book of 2017!  I heard a podcast on the origins of complex life earlier last year and Nick Lane appeared as a guest giving some insight into the matter. He then mentioned he had recently written a book on the topic and I was immediately interested. I had previously read Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by him. It is still one of my favourite scientific books to this day so I was excited to see what his next book had in store.

The book attempts to answer what Nick Lane sees as a “black hole” in biology. This is the fact that we don’t know why life evolved the way it did and why complex life appears to have only evolved once in four billion years! On top of this he looks to examine why all complex life on Earth shares elaborate traits such as sex to cell suicide, while none of these traits are shared by bacteria.

The first section examines how all eukaryotes all share a common ancestor, which arose just once in four billion years. They all have common traits that are written out in their gene sequences and in their DNA. Lane then goes on to examine what is considered ‘living’? By looking closer at this we see the importance of the environment. We discover that whilst life is about its structure (genes, evolution, etc.), living, growing and reproduction is largely governed by the environment also.

The second section looks at the origin of life and how complex life may have arisen. The problem with complex life is that there are no surviving evolutionary intermediaries that we often see. The fact that all eukaryotes have the same traits such as sex and cell suicide and death, seems to point to a common ancestor, however because this was so long ago, the organisms that were the original ancestors no longer exist.  However Lane makes arguments regarding how energy which plays a vital role in life, would have had a direct influence on how complex life arose and where. If anyone has read Nick Lane’s earlier book, Life Ascending, they will be familiar of alkaline vents. This section outlines how Lane believes these structures had a key role in the emergence of complex life. This is because they provide the exact conditions required for the origin of life:  a high flux of carbon and energy, physically channeled over inorganic catalysts, and then constrained which allows the accumulation of high concentrations of organics.

The third section looks at some of the key traits of complex life.  In this section we learn of the importance of mitochondria for the eukaryotic cell. Mitochondria are absolutely fascinating and has a electric potential of roughly 150-200 millivolts, which when we account for size is the equivalent of a bolt of lightning! The rest of the section looks at how important sex is to complex life, instead of the cloning method many prokaryotes use. It also looks at death and its role in complex life.

The book is interesting but its difficulty made it hard to enjoy for me in large parts. Unlike his earlier book, Life Ascending, I found myself lost in many parts of this book and felt it hard to keep up. However I must stress that despite reading a few popular science books, I have no great understanding of  biology beyond a basic level. I only studied biology in school up to the age of 18 so it was perhaps rather ambitious (or silly) to take on a book of this scope. Therefore I would recommend this book to readers who have better scientific knowledge or else to stick to Lane’s earlier and fascinating Life Ascending book, which I found easier to follow.

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Leinster 39 v Edinburgh 10

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Last Friday we played Edinburgh in a Pro 12 game. The Leinster team was depleted due to players being away on Ireland duty but they still managed to put out a strong team. We welcomed back some players from the Ireland camp like Van Der Flier and Luke McGrath who needed some game-time. And there were players starting after long injury lay-offs such as Dave Kearney and Joey Carbery.

It was really a game of two halves. The first was a torrid affair with lots of stoppages and with Leinster having to defend for most of the game. Leinster managed to get a try early in the half, but then spent the rest of the half defending their line through a combination of spirited Edinburgh attack and defence and Leinster’s poor exit strategies. On countless occasions, Leinster were turned over through aggressive counter-rucking from Edinburgh and not committing enough players to the ruck. On top of this, whenever Leinster did manage to get their hands on the ball they either box-kicked too far, inviting Edinburgh straight back at us or not finding touch. Despite this, it must be said that their defence was very impressive and they showed great character to refuse to allow Edinburgh to cross the whitewash.

The Leinster team was decimated by injuries throughout the game, which required some creative shuffling of the team to manage! The game ended with our starting outhalf at fullback, our fullback at centre, scrumhalf on the wing and hooker at blindside! We even had to finish with 14 men as Carbery went off and there were no further replacements! Despite the difficulties in the amount of injuries, the team did really well to get the bonus point in the second half, which featured some beautiful tries and offloading. Whatever was said at halftime seemed to have a very positive effect! One silver lining of the injuries was that Dan Leavy came on and played a blinder, seeming to pop up everywhere and earning the man of the match award in the process.

Overall it was crucial that Leinster got points from this game to ensure they kept the pressure on the Ospreys and Munster at the top. Also we have a very difficult end to the season with games against the Ospreys, Glasgow, Connacht and Ulster. This means that we need any points we can in this 6 nations period to ensure we are still in contention for play-off spots come the end of the season.

Castres 24 – Leinster 24

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I travelled over for the final group game for Leinster. It was a bitterly cold night in France but the match was exciting and was on a knife edge for most of the game to keep all of us in the crowd distracted. Leinster knew going in to the match that a win would guarantee a top 2 finish.

It started brilliantly with Leinster scoring a penalty and the Henshaw getting his first try for Leinster. It was an opportunistic score and we had suddenly found ourselves 10-0, appearing like we were cruising to an easy victory, especially considering Castres seemingly had nothing to play for.

However Castres were not going to give up that easily. Castres have only lost once this season at home and the rest of the game showed exactly why. They played with real passion and intensity that at times Leinster were powerless to stop. Leinster also lost the experience of Sexton and Nacewa early in the game, which only compounded their problems.

The game was a real rollercoaster for anyone present. In truth either team could have won. Castres looked on course to win it at the end with a series of mauls against 14 men. In fact it seemed only a matter of time before they did and snatched the game. However before that last period of sustained pressure, Leinster could well have got a bonus point win, with only the cruel bounce of the ball stopping Leinster’s Rob Kearney from running under the posts unopposed.

The result of all this was Leinster managing to hold Castres lunges for the line at bay and scraping a draw. It was enough to secure a home quarter final against Wasps. However it now means we will be away to either Clermont or Toulon in the semis! Despite all this I think it was important for Leinster to have a really tough game, lately we seem to have had a string of slightly easier matches which I feared had the potential to leave us exposed later on.

The Martian by Andy Weir

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(Read between 22/10/2016 – 21/11/2016)

The Martian is a science-fiction novel which tells the story of Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who becomes the only living human on Mars when his crew abandon him, on presumption that he has died. When Mark discovers he is alone on Mars he now has to figure out how to survive for as long as possible on a planet that is almost completely uninhabitable. The book flicks between Mark’s Sol’s (days on Mars) and NASA scientists back on Earth, both frantically trying to figure out how to keep Mark alive and they can possibly save him.

The book could serve as an advert for Murphy’s Law! Throughout the novel almost anything that could go wrong, does!  Just when Mark seems to have figured out a way at surviving for the time being, disaster always seems to strike. This keeps the reader constantly on the edge of their seat and hooked to see what happens next.

The novel also displays what human intelligence and sheer will can achieve. Because of difficulties of communication on Mars, Mark is largely left to his own throughout the novel to come up with solutions to lethal situations. The book is inspiring because it shows how combining the intelligence with a strong will to survive can do.

I would recommend this book to readers. It far exceeded my expectations. I had decided to read the book because the  movie came out last year and a friend recommended that I give the book a go first. I decided to give it a go as a break after a few difficult reads and it didn’t disappoint. As well as having really interesting science in the book, it is also a really funny read, with plenty of moments of humour to compliment the stressful ones.

Leinster 57 v Montpellier 3

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Last Friday Leinster faced Montpellier in a must-win game for qualification for the quarter-finals of the European Cup. What I had expected was an arm wrestle with a close game, especially after the away game which I went to earlier in the season. Instead what materialised was an engrossing first 20 minutes followed by a very one-sided last 60 minutes.

The end result was even more surprising given how well Montpellier started. In the opening 5/10 minutes, Montpellier looked the team much more likely to score. Then Leinster came back and scored two good tries, the second followed a beautiful piece of magic from Isa Nacewa. Then at around the 20th minute mark the game’s result was all but settled. Leinster looked dangerous and were going for their third try when Steyn hit Sexton late and high with a swinging arm. The tackle would have been on the edge of a red card a few weeks ago however now with the new crack-down on this area, the red was almost guaranteed.

One of the main talking points in the game apart from the red card was Leinster’s brilliant attacking play. Even before Montpellier had completely thrown in the towel, Leinster looked like they were well on their way to a bonus point. Leinster had brilliant running lines and brilliant variations in their attack. They also mixed it up with kicks in behind, chips and skip passes. It was extremely promising to watch and made it a very entertaining evening in the RDS.

Special mentions must go to Jack Conan who grabbed a hat-trick. Considering how difficult it is to get a place in the backrow at the moment in Leinster, this display would do his chances over the next few weeks no harm. Adam Byrne also played brilliantly scoring one of the best tries of the evening. Nacewa also played brilliantly, scoring one and setting up Conan’s first try of the night. It was also great to see Sexton back on the pitch. In the last few weeks we’ve been down to what was our 4th choice outhalf at the beginning of the season. Byrne and Carbery before him have both played very well in his absence, but it’s evident to see how well Sexton manages the game when he is on the field.

If we can follow up this result with a win next week in Castres we will have a home quarter-final which will be crucial for our chances to try and progress. But even at this point, it is looking a lot better than this stage last year!

We Are Arrested by Can Dundar

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(Read 17/10/2016 – 21/10/16)

The last few years in Turkey have seen a shift towards a more autocratic form of rule. With a recent attempted coup in mid July thousands of people in various positions in the public sector have been arrested. And with a sate of emergency in action these people are being arrested without trial and kept in confinement indefinitely. But even before all this journalists in Turkey have suffered career threatening state intervention through the form of censorship and imprisonment.

Over the previous decades, there has been an increased control imposed by the government in the media. Almost all of the newspapers are owned by the government or by pro-government sympathisers. One of the few remaining secular independent newspapers that remains is called Cumhuriyet. And its editor was Can Dundar, the author of this tragic autobiographical tale of how performing your duties as a journalist (reporting the news) can now land you and your family in harm’s way in a country like Turkey.

Can reported on an incident where trucks supposedly carrying aid to Syria were in fact carrying 6 steel containers. Inside these 6 containers were; 1,000 artillery shells, 50,000 machine gun rounds, 30,000 heavy machine gun rounds and 1,000 mortar shells. These trucks were en-route to anti-Assad extremist groups. Can received photos of these trucks on a flash drive from a friend. Despite knowing that there would more than likely be repercussions, Can and others in the Cumhuriyet bravely posted the story.

Erdogan was furious and came out and said that Can would pay a heavy price. The case against Can was on the charges of: providing documents regarding the security of the state, political and military espionage and propaganda for a terror organisation! What follows is a trial, whereby the reader doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at how the court plays with the journalist’s life like a pawn on a chess board, manipulating the charges to ensure that eventually the voices of free press will be removed entirely from the board.

Can was held in solitary confinement in Turkey’s Silivri prison for three months whilst awaiting trial. Here we learn about Can’s time in prison and how it affected him. What emerges is how solitary affects an inmate. The things most people take for granted are suddenly gone. Solitary is a form of torture of the mind and soul and it affects everyone no matter how strong they are mentally.

Some of the chapters whilst he was in prison are some of the most heart wrenching you are sure to find in any book. Whilst inside he misses his wedding anniversary, his son’s birthday and New Year’s celebrations. The episodes where he receives correspondence from his son or wife are tear-jerking moments. We get a real sense of hopelessness and the inability to affect anything on the outside.  Despite the overall sense of gloom surrounding his time in prison, we also get a glimpse into how Can keeps himself busy, which can be very funny and heart-warming.

I don’t want to ruin the rest of the story for those who want to go on to read the book. But I will say that this book is a must-read. It reveals the cruel faith that awaits honest journalists in a country where the government becomes more autocratic. At the time of reading this book, there were 126 journalists in Turkish jails, meaning there were more journalists in Turkish prisons than China, Iran and Egypt put together. The sad part is that Can Dundar is one of the lucky ones; others sit in prisons with no end in sight.

Therefore the book is key reading as a warning of what happens to journalists and media in modern day Turkey, but on top of this the book should be read as an example of what the blind bravery of one man in the face of an overwhelming power can achieve when coupled with the unconditional love and overwhelming support of those closest to him. Whilst reading the book I was constantly reminded of this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”

Whilst many of us dream of living by this doctrine, Can Dundar is a journalist who may be quietly assured that he belongs to the very few who continue to do so in the face of unimaginable obstacles.

 

 

Leinster 28 v Dragons 15

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It was nice to get back to the RDS to see another home live game after the November Internationals. Because Leinster were bulk suppliers to the Ireland team, there were plenty of notable absentees from the Leinster line-up. However despite this, it was exciting to see some of Leinster’s younger players getting a chance.

This was really a game of two halves, or more accurately 45 minutes and 35 minutes! In the first 45 minutes Leinster scored four tries and secured the bonus point through some beautiful running rugby. However after that they didn’t score any points for the remainder of the match. They let the Dragons back into the game but held out to deny them any points from their trip.

Despite the last thirty minutes, Leinster played really encouraging, heads-up rugby. They constantly looked to keep the tempo of their attack up and were always looking to offload. Some of the tries were really nice on the eye and it was a nice mix of forward power linking with the back’s electric pace and passing.

There were some really encouraging performances from a number of players. I thought the centre Rory O’Loughlin had a brilliant game, with his break for Carbery’s 4th try a real highlight. Another player that impresses me every time he plays this season is Adam Byrne, he is fast and strong and seems to have a real eye for the tryline. It was also a great game for Jack Conan in only his second game back from injury.

Despite the bonus point win on Saturday the next two weeks against Northampton Saints will be the making or breaking of our season. Lose these games and our stint in Europe will be over. Therefore it was interesting to see Carbery taken off before the 50th minute. This probably means that Sexton is injured next week and Carbery may start. It’s amazing what this guy has achieved so far this season!