“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is the amazing story of a young African – American woman who became ‘immortal’ after cervical cancer claimed her life in 1951. The cells from her cervix came to be known worldwide as HeLa cells and continued to grow and multiply ad infinitum. They were the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. They were the first living cells shipped via postal mail. They facilitated the development of the polio vaccine in 1952. They aided cancer research and virology studies, besides cloning and gene mapping. Both Russian and American scientists had managed to grow HeLa in space. But no one had ever heard of the cell donor.

Was Henrietta Lacks really a donor? Was she aware that her cells had been cultured? Poor Henrietta knew only pain and hopelessness. She didn’t know the cells that were killing her by the second were going to live forever.

The author gives us interesting details of the life and family of Henrietta Lacks and brings up interesting questions about medical ethics, informed consent, and donor rights. It was only two decades after her death that Henrietta Lacks was actually named in a publication as the source of the HeLa cells. Only then does the world realize that the cells came from a black woman. Only in 1973 do her children learn that her cells are still alive and multiplying. Only in 1975 do they understand that the cells are being bought and sold and that companies and individuals are earning profits while they themselves can barely afford medical treatment.

Henrietta Lacks, wife of David Lacks and mother of five children, died when she was just over thirty. She had been born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Her mother had died in childbirth when Loretta was only four years old. No one knows how or when Loretta became Henrietta. She was brought up by her grandfather, a poor tobacco farmer. She married her first cousin when she was twenty. By then the couple already had two children. It is a tragic tale of poverty and the acute deprivations that accompany it. Henrietta fell victim to cervical cancer, suffered acute distress, both physical and mental, and finally succumbed.

The book is as much about the life and journey of HeLa cells as it is about Henrietta Lacks and her family. You have to be greatly interested in science, anatomy, genetics and medicine to really enjoy the book. It is extensively researched, is acclaimed as a New York Times bestseller, and the subject is fascinating. Yet it is hard to sift through the scientific facts and get a grip on the story. The book unearths some unusual facts that most of us are unlikely to have heard of. “When the first humans went into orbit, Henrietta’s cells went with them so researchers could study the effects of space travel, as well as the nutritional needs of cells in space, and how cancerous and non-cancerous cells responded differently to zero gravity. What they found was disturbing: in mission after mission, noncancerous cells grew normally in orbit, but HeLa became more powerful, dividing faster with each trip.”

The sad part is that none of Henrietta’s children were able to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation that marked their mother’s life. The paths trodden by the five children are all too predictable, given the circumstances of their birth and family history and the reader can’t help sympathizing with them. What became of Elsie, the first daughter who was committed to a mental institution while still a child, is particularly heart-rending. Deborah, the younger daughter learns of her existence decades after Elsie’s death. Neither their father nor their eldest brother, Lawrence, had ever mentioned her.

Dr. George Gey was the man who cultured the first HeLa cells. This was at John Hopkins. He gave them away to anyone who asked for them. He had no profit motive. But soon the distribution of HeLa cells became commercialized and a multi-million dollar industry was born. Samuel Reader, the owner of Microbiological Associates was first to make big money out of this. But it was John Hopkins that Henrietta’s children were wary of. The author traces the history of this world renowned institution which makes interesting reading. “John Hopkins was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland where his father later freed his slaves nearly sixty years before Emancipation. Hopkins made millions working as a banker and grocer, and selling his won brand of whiskey, but he never married and had no children. So in 1873, not long before his death, he donated $7 million to start a medical school and charity hospital.” And the rest, as we know, is history.

The author informs us that, “A search of the US Patent and Trademark Office database turns up more than seventeen thousand patents involving HeLa cells.” The 1980 Supreme Court decision in the case of Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, who had been denied a patent for a genetically engineered bacterium that could consume oil and help clean up oil spills was an interesting piece of information.

Overall Assessment: Interesting, though not an easy read.

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The Martain

Mark Watney, who is an astronaut on spaceship Ares 3, is sent on a mission to Mars and left stranded following a storm. His crew thought he was dead after seeing his suit lose pressure, and they made the tough choice to abandon him. He somehow survives, but has to find a way to stay alive until he can be rescued. He has no idea how to contact NASA back on Earth. His food, water, and oxygen will only last so long, so he needs to devise a plan that will keep his alive until help arrives. There’s little room for error, though, and Watney comes dangerously close to disaster on numerous occasions, using “Sols,” or days, to recount his stunning story.

The Martian is a different kind of book, a true science thriller in which math and science play the main role in the plot. Many pages are just Watney’s thoughts, filled with dissecting complex calculations about the planet’s orbit or his calorie consumption.

That doesn’t mean the book was long-winded or boring. It was interesting to see what a person on Mars thinks, as none of us has ever experienced it. Author Andy Weir creates a hilarious character in Mark Watney, who cracks jokes at random times, which keeps the readers entertained. Watney is also easy to empathize with. While no one can relate to his Mars experience, we can all relate to his emotions, and Watney makes it easier to take in the scientific part of the book without becoming overwhelmed.

I would recommend this book to all readers, as it would appeal not only to space travel enthusiasts but also regular people looking for a gripping plot. Although there may be a lot of description, Watney’s wittiness and his Mars adventures keep readers interested and captivated.

The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication Date: October 2014

Reviewer: Sahil Kurup is a high-school student at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California.

“The Accidental Universe” by Alan Lightman


While it is all too easy to get caught up in our everyday lives—the daily grind, the demands, the challenges, the joys, the sorrows—all we need to do to get some sense of perspective is look up at the stars. Not only are we tiny specks on one planet which itself is part of a solar system comprising other planets, that solar system itself is one of millions of such stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, which itself is one of millions of galaxies in our universe! And as if that is not enough to make us feel completely insignificant, space scientists are now postulating that our universe may actually be one of multiple universes—a “multiverse.” If that is true, the implications are even more staggering, making us even less than insignificant in the larger scheme of things—if such a thing is even possible.

For those who find this “bigger picture” intriguing and fascinating and would like to understand it better, The Accidental Universe is a must-read. Written by Alan Lightman who is both a theoretical physicist and a writer, the book is able to take the concept of space­—the science of which is incredibly complex—and present it in humanistic terms that everyone can relate to. And this is really important for anyone trying to understand their place in the universe without having to devote their lives to becoming space scientists, astronomers, astronauts, or theoretical physicists like Lightman—because any of these professionals could spend their lifetimes doing what they do without pondering on the personal implications of what they are studying, or even if they do, lacking the ability to express it. Who better than a writer to present the complex science of space in a non-scientific way that is accessible to everyone, and most importantly, to still preserve the feeling of awe at the idea of being part of something so mysterious, so magical, so “out of the world”?

Although the title of the book is The Accidental Universe, it is actually a collection of essays on several different aspects of the universe in addition to accidental, such as temporary, spiritual, symmetrical, gargantuan, lawful, and disembodied. Each of these chapters makes for a fascinating read in and of itself, although I found that the first chapter on the “accidental” universe seemed to be the crux of the book, capturing most of the current ideas and discoveries about the universe. It seems to provide an answer to the most fundamental puzzle of our existence, at least of the physical aspect of it, namely: How come? How come there is life­­—of which we are a part—on this planet?

The answer, based on current cosmological discoveries and thought, seems to be that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes, each of which has different properties and laws; and of all the possible permutations, the universe we live in happens to have the properties to support life as we know it. (Hence, the term “accidental.”) For all we know, any of the other universes has the properties to support an entirely different kind of life. We can only conjecture about this rather than know for certain, as current science has not reached beyond the boundaries of our own universe. And given that even within our own universe, stars are billions of light-years away and that our own life spans are only about a hundred years, it seems impossible to know for certain. In fact, we do not even know for sure whether there is life elsewhere in our own universe apart from on our little tiny planet, although it seems difficult to imagine why there shouldn’t be.

We seem to getting into the realm of science fiction here, but The Accidental Universe makes no such conjectures or predictions about life elsewhere and instead remains firmly rooted in the actual science of what we know. At the same time, the book also veers into topics that would seem more philosophical than scientific. For example, with regard to the fundamental existential question of why we exist, we need to keep in mind that the only reason why this question is raised in the first place is because we are here, in this universe, to ponder it. As Lightman so eloquently puts it, “From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life. But then again, if we had not drawn such a ticket, we would not be here to ponder the odds.” The idea is a bit of a mind-bender, but the bottom line is that even if we were not here, if the happy accident of our particular universe supporting our life form did not happen, the world comprising these multiverses would still exist. We would not be here to ask what life means, as we would not exist. So should we ask for meaning in life simply because we exist?

It’s a tricky question, as human beings have a deep-rooted need for meaning in their lives. Perhaps by learning more about the universe, ours as well as the many others that might be out there, we might come to realize that the question itself makes no sense and therefore the search for meaning is futile. By a random chance, we exist, so let’s just make the best of it.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew
Author: Alan Lightman
Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition
Publication Date: October 2014

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey” by Spencer Wells


You are descended from a man who lived in Africa about 59,000 years ago. Do you find this hard to believe or accept? Well, that’s not all. Every other guy living on Planet Earth today is also descended from the same man! Man, wasn’t he a lucky man! The poor savage wouldn’t have imagined this level of success even in his wildest dreams!

How did the descendants of all the other ancients disappear into thin air? And if all of us have a common male ancestor then why do we all look so different? What accounts for our different colors and characteristics? Does race mean anything at all? How did the descendants of this super grandpa spread all over the planet? Where did they go first? How long did they remain in Africa?

This path-breaking book tries to answer all these questions. Earlier studies had revealed that all of us are descended from a single female ancestor (called Mitochondrial Eve) who lived about 150,000 years ago in Africa. Charles Darwin wrote in 1871, “It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee, and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it seems somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” How right he was!

Today we know that apes lived in Africa some 23 million years ago. We went searching for the so-called ‘missing link’ and we found Homo Erectus, the first stand-up man. We wondered whether some of us are descended from the Neanderthals. We were puzzled about the Java Man, the Peking Man and so many others. It appears now that the Southern Ape is more likely to be our direct ancestor than any of these guys. The oldest genetic lineages are found in people living in eastern and southern Africa.

The sequencing of the human genome provided several answers and threw up just as many questions. Humans were in Australia 50,000-60,000 years ago. They are the only primates on the continent. This means they must have colonized the continent from elsewhere. The DNA trail leads to Africa. Homo erectus never made it to Australia, though they inhabited the island of Java. The aborigines of Australia have a lot in common with the Bushmen of southern Africa. How did homo sapiens travel to Australia so long ago? Did they make boats? Traces left by modern humans in Europe date back to a mere 40,000 years! And Europeans claim they ‘discovered’ Australia! Obviously 21st century humans need to unlearn much that they had learnt.

There is evidence to show that early moderns arrived in India from the south rather than the north. The Dravidian languages are completely unrelated to the Indo-European languages. And DNA markers seem to indicate that the Aryan invasion theory is not without substance.

As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia would induce us to conjecture that the former are the descendants of the latter, or the latter of the former…” We know now that Jefferson had hit the nail on the head. It was across the Bering Strait that modern man came to the new World – and it took him only a thousand years to reach the southern tip of South America. Spencer Wells adds that, “Three-quarters of the large mammals in the Americas were driven to extinction around this time, among them mammoths and horses – the latter weren’t to reappear in the Americas until the Spaniards introduced them in the fifteenth century.”

Overall Assessment: A fascinating read. Biologists, anthropologists, geneticists, truth-seekers, DO READ!

The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey
Author: Spencer Wells
Publisher: Random House
Date of Publication: 2003

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.