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Deep Time, Big Pharma and Tiny Bacteria.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

NATURE'S CLOCKS How Scientists Measure the Age of Almost Everything By Doug Macdougall | Univ. of California. 271 pp. $24.95

Doug Macdougall, professor emeritus of earth sciences at the University of California at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, knows all about dating. Not that dating -- the other kind.

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His book is an introduction to geochronology, the science of measuring past time. After a brief, lucid explanation of radioactivity, he recounts the development of radiocarbon dating by scientists in Chicago in the late 1940s. Then he nimbly traverses the ways in which researchers have read the timepieces hidden in sea mud, spruce stumps, even tooth enamel.

He also lays bare the relevance of this specialty: "For biologists and paleontologists, it has informed ideas about evolution. For archaeologists, it has provided time scales for the development of cultures and civilizations. And it has given geologists a comprehensive chronology of our planet's history."

For time-conscious readers, Nature's Clocks provides satisfaction beyond measure.

--Susan P. Williams

SIDE EFFECTS A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and A Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial By Alison Bass | Algonquin. 260 pp. $24.95

When Alison Bass was reporting for the Boston Globe in the 1990s, she began gathering string for the rope she has skillfully twined around drug companies and the psychiatric profession in Side Effects.

The prosecutor in her subtitle is Rose Firestein, who ferreted out that pharmaceutical makers were withholding negative results of studies on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, a class of antidepressants that appeared to avoid the side effects of older drugs. The studies indicated that SSRIs prompted suicidal thoughts in some patients, especially young adults.

The whistleblower was Donna Howard, a Brown University administrator who told authorities that the head of its psychiatry department was running drug studies funded by pharmaceutical firms in which serious side effects were not always documented accurately.

And the bestselling antidepressant was Paxil, whose manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, was sued in New York over its alleged failure to disclose the drug's side effects. In 2004, Glaxo settled, agreeing to publish the negative studies and pay the state $2.5 million.

Bass evokes sympathy for many players in this story. Her narrative bristles with data without fraying into tedium. And she underlines the gravity of hiding patients' injuries. Side Effects is long-form journalism at its best.

--Susan P. Williams

MICROCOSME. coliand the New Science of Life By Carl Zimmer | Pantheon. 243 pp. $25.95

Homo sapiens likes to believe it is the most advanced species on the planet, certainly way ahead of anything as primitive as E. coli -- the usually harmless, microscopic bacteria that live in our guts.

But as Carl Zimmer, a science writer for the New York Times, explains in Microcosm, humans have more in common with the bacteria than they realize. E. coli are social. They have sex. Some are even lactose intolerant.

In getting to know E. coli, scientists have come to understand the building blocks and mechanisms that underpin all life. E. coli helped them figure out what genes are made of and how genes are turned on and off, among other watershed findings. Zimmer moves from discovery to discovery, marking each scientist's contribution to the larger body of knowledge, but he doesn't dwell too long on individuals. The star of the book is the bacterium.

In recent years, biotech engineers have manipulated its genes to create life-sustaining drugs. "Through E. coli we can see the history of life," Zimmer writes, "and we can see its future as well."

--Annys Shin

The reviewers are staff writers for the Washington Post.


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