If, like me, you waved goodbye to the sciences at the age of 16 and have felt insecure about it ever since, then Youniverse is the book you need. Reading Elsie Burch Donald’s brisk but engaging whistle-stop guide to science in the modern world acts as an odd sort of Proustian madeleine, one that takes you back to Bunsen burners, ticker-tape timers and strange objects in formaldehyde, stored tantalisingly out of reach in glass-panelled shelves, only to be taken down and examined as an end-of-term treat. To read this book was to reconnect with a universe which I felt guilty about ignoring.
Donald’s primer, or reminder, is divided into 14 chapters and deals with all the usual things that generations of schoolchildren have learned by rote – the structure of chemical bonds, the DNA double helix structure and the four lobes of the brain. Things I had once had etched into my memory – such as my favourite factoid, that if an atom were to be magnified to the size of a football field, its nucleus would be the size of a pea – resurface here like half-remembered mantras. But while my own memory is hazy, Donald’s gift for organisation means subjects are very clearly defined and explained. A summary at the end of each section reminds you, revision-like, of what you have just learned.
If this sounds a bit too much like hard work, you should know that Donald has a tone which sometimes borders on the lyrical (describing how the universe might have been reborn, she says that it rose again "like a reseeded plant or indomitable bouncing ball"). I could have done with such vivid descriptions when I was studying for my GCSEs, and it is no surprise to learn that Donald is also a novelist.
She also displays a lightness of touch when introducing things from outside the realm of science. Gene control is foregrounded by Viola’s quote from Twelfth Night about giving oneself up to the hands of fate ("O time, thou must untangle this, not I") while Descartes (naturally) introduces the section on genomes.
It was also interesting to see the advancements of the past 30 years (ie since I gave my textbooks to the charity shop) folded into the wider world of scientific knowledge. I am too old to have learnt in school about how dark matter, which makes up most of the universe, was stretched apart by a force called "dark energy". To see the rapid advancements in scientific research felt rather humbling, and a little overwhelming.
Indeed, Donald doesn’t stint on making you aware of your relative insignificance in the cosmos. Atoms are described as "immortal", we are told that a cell "commits suicide for your greater good", and the mind is a "workaday soul". Indeed towards the end of the book, I did sometimes wonder whether I was reading a terrifying prophecy rather than an accessible book on scientific fundamentals. Robots are taking over (as Darwin once said: "All species become extinct over time"), while designer babies are an inevitability. The dark side of endeavour is not stinted on here.
Donald does sometimes gloss over vital issues in her rush to get you to the next stage of her story. I would like to have known more, for example, about Down’s syndrome and the duplication of ring chromosomes. Also, an editor should’ve stamped out the irritating subheadings that litter each chapter. A section on communication is entitled "speakeasy". I know accessibility is crucial, but these layman-friendly terms start to grate after a while.
Still, few science books have managed to engage me in quite such a way since I hurtled headlong towards the humanities – and that is thanks to Donald’s clean and crisp prose.