Book review: The Making of You by Katherina Vestre

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It is often said that the nine-month long construction of a new little human is one of life’s great miracles. However, in the same breath, we are perhaps also a little guilty of taking this extraordinary feat of biology for granted. Katherina Vestre’s book The Making of You: A Journey from Cell to Human pulls back the curtain on human development, revealing this to be no mystical miracle, rather, an elegant, stepwise process that we are all capable of understanding in a little more detail.

Katerina Vestre is a young doctoral research fellow at the department of Biosciences at the University of Oslo. In other words, she is a full-time research biologist at the beginning of her career and this is her debut popular science book. The book certainly does what it says on the tin; it guides the reader through the major stages of human embryonic development from conception to birth. We as readers are told the tale of the sperm’s journey to the egg, the wiring of the body by the nervous system, the decision to make hands instead of fins, and much more.

In fact, one of the pleasant surprises to me was how Vestre has imbued her book with a great deal of background biology. Whether it is explaining the evolutionary origins of human hairlessness, or recalling the classical fruit fly experiments of the 1980s, Vestre effortless hops in and out of the main narrative to enrich our experience with interesting scientific context. By elaborating on how past scientists worked things out and why an organism might evolve in a certain way, she makes the topics covered seem all the more extraordinary. Moreover, she helps break down the fallacy that all scientific knowledge is somehow divined by white-haired scientists by means too complex for us mortals to understand. To the contrary, we learn that major breakthroughs often happen by simple experiments, careful observation, and the odd splatter of serendipity.

As somebody who has been fortunate enough to study developmental biology at degree level, I can testify that it is a particularly challenging subject to understand. Whilst our bodies build themselves there are all sorts of complicated spatial reorientations of cells and structures with strange names and it often becomes hard to see the wood for the trees. This book succeeds in keeping jargon to a minimum and instead explaining the essence of each step in our construction with a series of much more tangible metaphors. My favourite is the likening of self-signalling of immune cells to the bodie’s soldiers giving themselves a pep-talk before they go to fight infection.

However, the book’s greatest strength lies not with funny analogies, easy to understand biology, or historical background, but with the authors blazing passion for the subject. Vestre’s open and informal writing style allows us to see this world spring into colour through her eyes and share in her excitement and awe. Conveying one’s passion for their science is essential for great popular science communicators. You need only think of people like Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox to appreciate that it’s as much the loaned sense of wonder that we crave as the nitty gritty scientific detail.

This book has very few faults. On one or two brief occasions, the text strays into the realms of slightly abstract spatial descriptions of tissue folding which could benefit from extra illustrations. Additionally, there is a section near the end of the book discussing the acuteness of foetuses senses in the womb which seems to go a little too long. However, these are very minor complaints directed at an otherwise excellent book. I highly recommend this to anyone one with a desire to learn more about how they came to be.

This article was written by Finn Bruton and edited by Miles Martin

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