Tag Archives: book review

A New Review of Embryogenesis Explained

The review is by:

Dr. Palmiro Poltronieri
Editor-in-Chief, Challenges
National Research Council of Italy,
AgroFood Department,
Institute of Sciences of Food Productions
via Monteroni km 7
73100 Lecce, Italy

“The model discussed by the authors is based on a simple, unifying idea that differentiation waves, based on cell cytoskeleton, i.e., contraction and expansion of the network of microfilaments and microtubules, is at the basis of mechano-transduction signalling, that brings transcription factors to regulate chromatin into specific cell-stage differentiation states, based on regulons, i.e., the wholeness of opened DNA regions and inaccessible DNA regions. Thus, from determination of a cell’s fate, i.e., signaling to advancement of process, to differentiation state, i.e., new transcriptional program and reprogramming of active regulons, clusters of cells thus divide, mature and form the various cell type component tissues of the developing embryo.”

And my favourite part:

“Overall, the book is a great book, documenting with images, schematic reproductions and drawings the embryo development, showing parallelisms, universal processes and the peculiarities of various vertebrates and invertebrates.”

You can read the full open access review here:

Our Fourth Positive Review

Miller, D. (2017). The cell state splitter: Embryogenesis Explained: A review. Systems Biology in Reproductive Medicine, doi: 10.1080/19396368.19392017.11290160.

“What I was not expecting was a whole new and potentially paradigm shifting concept in our understanding of what drives cell determination and fate in the developing embryo, in the form of the cell state splitter and differentiation trees. I am not alone in being (up till now at any rate) ignorant of these fascinating ideas.”


David Miller

from Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

A Third Positive Review

We are running three for three now.

“The entire work is richly illustrated and the authors’ passion for their subject is evident in every page, making for an enjoyable and informative read. The coverage of experimental works and the authors’ almost conversational style of writing are effective in breaking up a topic which is traditionally mired in abstruse theory and terminology.” Richard Mayne, University of the West of England

This review is in press and and will be published in International Journal of Unconventional Computing and will appear on line soon.

Another Review!

“Embryologenesis Explained is a pleasure to read, presenting difficult concepts clearly and effectively. It carries deep biological thought, and whether one agrees with the differentiation waves theory or not, it is inspiring and stimulating.”

Biol Theory
DOI 10.1007/s13752-017-0260-z


Mechanistic Development

Natalie K. Gordon and Richard Gordon: Embryogenesis Explained; World Scienti c, Singapore, 2016, 784 pp., £164 hbk, ISBN 978-981-4350-48-8

Jean-Jacques Kupiec1

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2017



“Overall, Embryogenesis Explained is a very interesting book. Although it is primarily intended to be theoreti- cal, it provides a large overview of the data collected on various subjects of developmental biology and could thus also be used as a complementary textbook. Of course, it raises a number of questions. The main question concerns the di erentiation waves theory itself. I am typically one of those biologists referred to by the authors who usually does not put the cytoskeleton and mechanical forces at the forefront for understanding development. So, was I con- vinced that the cell state splitter is the driver of develop- ment? The theory is certainly coherent. It is based on data and it suggests testable hypotheses. In this regard it should be accepted, and its research program should be developed. Natalie and Richard Gordon undoubtedly point to some- thing very important, and molecular biologists focused on gene expression will bene t from reading this book.”

“Am I entirely convinced, however? When reading this book, a question will inevitably arise in the mind of any reader: could it be that simple? In the preface, the authors argue that a theory of embryogenesis has to be simple. But, I am perplexed. Although I agree that the physics of biology has not been su ciently taken into account, and this is why Embryogenesis Explained is valuable, I have some reservations about the purely mechanical theory proposed here and the broader holistic philosophy in which it is inserted. First, the di erentiation waves theory is totally deterministic, whereas the stochastic aspects of cellular physiology, notably in gene expression, are amply docu- mented now. Integrating the randomness of cells into the picture will produce a radical change. Because of this inherent stochasticity in cellular behavior, cell fate cannot be determined exclusively by the cell state splitter as described here in a purely deterministic way. I would rather see the physics of biology as imposing constraints that give a direction to cells but not as acting as their rst causal mover. Second, I am not at ease either with the holistic philosophy the authors wrap their theory in. I even nd it to be paradoxical. Mechanism is philosophically associated with reductionism. There is no doubt that if Descartes were alive today he would enthusiastically approve and applaud the authors’ mechanistic theory. But, I think there is a widespread confusion among a number of biologists today. Because they reject genetic reduction- ism they tend to reject reductionism in general and adopt a holistic perspective. However, there are different forms of reductionism. Natalie and Richard Gordon’s theory is physicalist, and physicalism is an even more radical form of reductionism than genetic reductionism. In my mind this is not an infamy. Historically reductionism has been (and still is) the prima philosophy and methodology of science. It is beyond the scope of this review to analyze these issues in depth. I mention them only to show possible further discussions. It does not diminish the merit of Natalie and Richard Gordon. Clearly, they are successful writers, and I enthusiastically recommend their book. Embryology Explained is a pleasure to read, presenting difficult concepts clearly and effectively. It carries deep biological thought, and whether one agrees with the differentiation waves theory or not, it is inspiring and stimulating.”

Our First Review Now Available Online!

Igamberdiev, A.U. (2016). Book Review: Morphomechanics of Development. Lev V. Beloussov, Andrei Lipchinsky. Springer International Publ. BioSystems, In press. Web:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0303264716302532

The article is now available on line (though behind a paywall if you don’t have a university or similar library access. Here are our two favourite excerpts!

The title of the book is based on the belief of the authors that the fundamental phenomenon first described by them forms the basis for a profound explanation of the phenomenon of embryogenesis and represents a “right theory” of individual development of biological organisms. Thus the book provides an expanded explanation of this new theory of how embryos build themselves using the phenomenon of generation of differentiation waves. The background given for the theory combines simple physical principles with the most recent breakthroughs in genet- ics, biochemistry, and biophysics. Despite a huge amount of detail and experimental data, the book is accessible to a broad audience includ- ing not only embryologists but also biologists of different profiles, researchers working in many fields of science, teachers and students.

This book by Natalie and Richard Gordon represents an important development in the field of developmental biology and in the foundations of theoretical biology. Its clear presentation and style makes it a perfect complementary textbook for teaching embryogenesis and re- lated courses. It is strongly recommended to everybody who is interested in the problems of embryogenesis and, in general, in foundations of biological organization. In the end, after reading this book, we are convinced that the concept of differentiation waves explains the mystery of embryogenesis. Further elaboration and strengthening of the experimental basis of research related to the phenomenon of differentiation waves may provide new further evidence in support of this great concept.

The First Review of Embryogenesis Explained!


We got our first review! Andrei Igamberdiev has reviewed our book for BioSystems. He kindly sent us an advance copy. The full review will be submitted to BioSystems and hopefully published December or January. He especially noticed and commented on how we included the Russian literature related to embryogenesis. He also praised us because the book makes embryology accessible to non biologists which we were especially pleased to hear because that was our main reason for writing. We are delighted to have someone completely independent from us say such nice stuff!

Dear Richard,

I have read your book with great interest! You convinced me that the
concept of differentiation waves is a real basis of the phenomenon
of embryogenesis. Also your book contains a lot of important
information on different aspects of not only embryogenesis but of
the whole field of general and theoretical biology.


Embryogenesis Explained is printed!

We got an email message today from someone who had preordered their copy of our book Embryogenesis Explained. His copy has arrived and he was reading it and enjoying it! How exciting is that? Our own personal copies are somewhere in transit. Hopefully they will arrive in Alonsa shortly.

We are also sending out a personal email to every single one of the over 1900 scientists whose work is cited in the book. This assumes that they are still with us, as some have gone on to that great laboratory in the sky. And it also assumes that we can find a correct email. Some of these scientists are retired and some have vanished from academia, or are students who have graduated and gone on to other careers.

We are also sending out emails inviting book reviewers. If you are a scientist or someone interested in science written at a popular level and would like do a review for publication, we can arrange for you to have a free copy for review purposes. Just contact us and we can start the ball rolling.

If you use the code WSGSML20 you will get a 20% discount. The code is good until December 31.


Near Misses: Paths not Crossed with Richard Bellman

World Scientific Publishing recently had a sale of electronic books, in which I came across and downloaded:

Bellman, Richard (1984). Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography,  World Scientific. Web:  https://books.google.com/books?id=6rN7QgAACAAJ; http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/0076

for US$9.90. I had heard that Bellman had a reputation of meeting someone, having a chat, and sending them a manuscript to co-author the next day. In this way he was the applied math complement to Paul Erdös, about whom I wrote:

Gordon, R. (2011). Cosmic Embryo #1: My Erdös Number Is 2i.  http://www.science20.com/cosmic_embryo/cosmic_embryo_1_my_erd%C3%B6s_number_2i

While Bellman doesn’t discuss this story, he did love to travel, and much of the book is about the places he has been, even including in some cases the addresses of hotels he liked. He was indeed prolific: “Over the course of his career he published 619 papers and 39 books. During the last 11 years of his life [1920-1984] he published over 100 papers despite suffering from crippling complications of brain surgery” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Bellman). Whoever added his CV to the end of the autobiography upped it to 620 papers and 40 books. While it was written in 1978, his autobiography seems to have been published after his death in 1984. He doesn’t even mention his medical condition in the book.

What what I found uncanny about his autobiography is how many people he names who I also knew, and one he didn’t name, but undoubtedly knew: my own father, Jack Gordon. I deduce this because both played handball at Brighton Beach near the boardwalk to Coney Island, New York, on one-wall courts. Bellman, born in 1920, was 7 months older than my father, who I recall was winning at handball at age 13, on those courts. Maybe he trounced Bellman. While my father focussed on handball all his life and became a USA national champion (Singer, Stuffy (1994). Gordon honored with Kendler Award. Handball 44(1), 18.), Bellman was an all-round jock, claiming to excel at other sports: tennis, table tennis, track, football, basketball, baseball, swimming. He even did some ballet. I can recall those courts, the boardwalk, the hot summer beach on which one could hard boil an egg, building sand castles, the lines of rocks with oysters perpendicular to the beach, out into the water, and Nathan’s hotdog stand. It was there my mother, then Diana Lazaroff, met my father. This book rang of childhood nostalgia for me. I was raised nearby until age 5, when my parents moved to Chicago about 1948.

But our lives were further intertwined. I postdoced with Stanislaw Ulam; he reviewed Ulam’s “A Collection of Mathematical Problems”, and knew him well. Three more misses: “Nixon announced that two billion dollars would be available for cancer research. The experts in the field were to gather in Warrentown, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, to divide up the pie. I was chairman of a committee on the use of mathematical methods. The other members of the committee were, John Jacques, Fred Grodins, Bob Rosen, Monas Berman, and John Hearon…. At Warrentown, we had a good time deciding how we would spend the money. Alas, it was a typical Nixon trick. He posed for TV cameras and gave away pens, but not a penny ever appeared.” I had postdoced with Bob Rosen at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY/Buffalo, worked under John Hearon at the Mathematical Research Branch at NIH, and knew Monas Berman while there. Natalie and I had a strange encounter with Bellman’s former student John Casti at the Third International Workshop, Open Problems of Computational Molecular Biology, Telluride, Colorado, July 11-25, 1993, albeit after Bellman’s death. Casti, guest of honor, left the conference the first evening, when (not knowing who he was) I said to him “we can explain that” in reference to a remark about embryology by the host. Beyond that, the book is full of names of mathematicians and scientists whose work I knew, a slice in time through that culture, written by someone one generation ahead of me, but overlapping. It was quite a journey, watching Bellman’s parallel life.

It was from a couple of Bellman’s math books that I learned about concepts such as differential-delay equations and invariant embedding. The former helped me understand the 30 year cycle in academic hiring, reported going back to the 1800’s in:

Nyhart, L.K. (1995). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago,  University of Chicago Press.

Let’s say jobs are available for would-be professors. Lots of students decide to go into the open disciplines. By the time they are trained (the delay), the jobs are being snarfed up. So the next generation of students seek other disciplines. And so it goes, with no one doing long-range, 30 or more year planning, to equalize supply and demand. I suppose we could call the oscillating academic job market an emergent phenomenon! I actually hit one of those peaks, at age 33 in 1977, when I applied for 100 jobs, got a couple of interviews, and no offers. Out of luck, with 300 to 500 younger applicants per job opening at that time, I answered a phone call from Winnipeg asking me to recommend someone for a job there with “How about me?”. And so I ended up at the University of Manitoba.

Like Ulam (who is discussed in my blog on Erdös), Bellman was a mathematician first. For instance, he had a moral compunction to work on the H-bomb, but when his math didn’t prove useful to the project, he dropped out, rather than solve the problem with whatever it took. As with Ulam, we would not have seen eye to eye: “There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa” (Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11, http://life.biology.mcmaster.ca/~brian/biomath/careers.theo.biol.html).

I was about to wind up this blog by adding a photo of Bellman, but came across something even better, a movie by his grandson:

Bellman, G.L. (2011). The Bellman Equation [movie].  http://www.bellmanequation.com; http://www.amazon.com/Equation-Goldstein-Betty-Jo-Dreyfuss-Landauer/dp/B00C6WHRM4

So rather than color my blog by the movie, I’ll post this first, and enjoy the movie tonight with Natalie.

Baby Girl or Baby Boy

Today we had the pleasure of enjoying a lunch with Dr. Mark Moore and having a chance to read his wonderful and funny little book. This is basically a funny little cartoon book that lends itself to a frank and open talk about the major plague in our world of gender selection in utero, especially against girls. Nothing is fool proof and I heard the success rate for such techniques was not great, 50:50 becoming 60:40. Dr. Moore said over lunch it was more like 80:20. Those aren’t bad odds. If you are planning your pregnancy it is likely worth the effort.

The book itself is lighthearted. It talks about the things a couple can do to influence the gender of their baby. Now I am the grandmother/step-grandmother to a total of nine lovely boys and one single girl. I love all my grandchildren, boys or girl. You get what you get and you love what you get. I would not give up one single hair on the sweet head of any of my darling boys! But I do have to admit it would have been nice to have a few more granddaughters to balance things. I have to admit that the first thing I thought when the eldest grew big enough to look down on me was ‘Oh good, now I can hope for great-granddaughters!’ Princess dresses and pink frills do give me a wistful sigh before I head off to the boy’s section.

I also have done some counselling of couples and it struck me that this book gives a couple more knowledge and control. When people have more knowledge and control, I think they are more likely to accept what they end up with in all situations but especially in the gender of their baby. Working in a genetics clinic as I did, I was a party to discussions about the ethics of informing couples about the gender of their baby when we knew the result would probably be a flying trip back to old country for the termination of a healthy fetus. I think a book like this will reduce such nonsense. Given all the terrible things that can go wrong, and seeing the agony of couples who can’t conceive, or who are hoping for a specific gender to avoid a terrible sex-linked genetic illness, I must say the mere idea of terminating a healthy normal fetus just because the gender is wrong simply makes me feel ill. So I am all for anything to prevent or reduce that possibility.

I also think that the simple easy way this book is written makes it suitable for explaining this technique (and a few other things) in a clinic to a couple whose first language is not English. It has been my experience that a vehement desire for gender selection is more common in new Canadians from other cultures. I also found that some people mistakenly think that the mother determines the gender and the mother is blamed for not producing the correct desirable gender. This is, of course, incorrect. And I have seen a father take the bad news about the gender being different from expectation with much more grace when he was told it was his own doing and not his wife’s. (I also once saw a mother-in-law cuff her son-in-law not quite gently enough for it to be a joke when the new baby was the fourth child of the same gender and while I did empathize, I did not approve.)

And so we had a very nice lunch and as you would expect, given the way the book, is written, Dr. Moore was a pleasant, kind and amusing fellow in person. And having read his book I can definitely recommend it. Best of all I got to think about my wonderful grandchildren and how very blessed I have been in the grandchild department.

(Ultimately) Alone in the Universe, by Richard (Dick) Gordon


I was trying to convince Abraham (Avi) Loeb to join me as an editor of Habitability of the Universe before Earth (HUBE), a book I’m planning in the new book series Astrobiology: Exploring Life on Earth and Beyond (World Scientific Publishing, London) with series editors Joseph Seckbach (Israel), Pabulo Henrique Rampelotto (Brazil) and me (Canada & USA). Now, as Natalie and I have long observed, organizing scientists is much like herding cats. Avi turned me down, despite saying he is very drawn to the subject, on the basis that he is writing yet another book (Books by Abraham Loeb) and that he is heading some sort of award giving group (Breakthrough Initiatives Project of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation). Then he sent me his latest book, available only in Kindle format, From the First Star to Milkomeda. (He did not ask me to do this review.) Milkomeda refers to the result of collision of our Milky Way Galaxy with the “nearby” Andromeda Galaxy “within a few billion years”. Whew! Imagine trying to absorb and assimilate migrants from another 100 billion planets.

This is a semi-autobiographical account of a fine mature scientist and academic who has reached the peak in his career. By reading this book you can see how his mind works and sense his high personal and academic standards. You can also sense the intense loneliness that comes with reaching such a place. It’s a weird book giving you a view most people never see, the workings of an imaginative, clever, sharp, yet careful mind. He is a theoretician, par excellence, with substantial immunity from the grant system and the committees who decide who gets viewing time on expensive, communal telescopes. As a theoretical biologist I understand this independence. It allows our ideas to pour forth.

Avi thinks big. His latest work is on the earliest formation of water in our universe, and the possibility that life developed way back when. I have long been annoyed with the many books on the origin of life that presume, without discussion, that life began on Earth. This is one of the last anthropocentrisms, the first being that Earth is the center of the universe. I had an opportunity to knock the idea down a bit when Alexei Sharov and I wrote Life Before Earth. He came at the problem from a biological point of view, extrapolating a measure of organism complexity back in time, and I helped spell out the consequences. Avi calculates the first time the universe had places warm and cool enough to support liquid water. Both calculations allow for life for most of the 13.6 billion years our universe has been around, not just the paltry 4.54 billion years since the formation of our solar system.

When you start Milkomeda, you think you are about to be treated to a proper autobiography, farm boy near Tel Aviv rocketing to theoretical astrophysicist. But the book in short order plunges into the kind of language one expects in grant applications, giving only hints of Avi’s personal life. As all of Avi’s work is new to me, his 500 or so papers not having crossed my computer desktop previously, I saw past the “justifications” in the grant style of writing to fascinating ideas, like stars doing sling shots around pairs of black holes to achieve speeds near the speed of light. What a ride! Now I have to know whether life on planets around such flying stars would have any chance of surviving the trip? If so, we’d have a mechanism that could spread life well beyond the confines of galaxies. Close encounters with black holes are tales worth telling. I really enjoyed this.

Avi has reached that point in scientific life where he gives much thought to mentoring. A substantial portion of Milkomeda is devoted to the cultivation of the minds of young astrophysicists, trying to strike a balance between them towing the line and being obnoxiously creative. Here Avi shows he is one of us unherded cats. Did you ever hear of a labor union of scientists? No such thing. I’m still nominally President of CARRF, the Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding, whose members have long since dispersed or departed Earth. My cofounders rejected my preferred moniker UNFUN, the Union of Unfunded Scientists. But under the CARRF banner, we produced much peer reviewed and other literature on how to improve/replace the peer review system for grants. Avi has rediscovered many of these ideas, our tiltings at windmills, unaware of our published efforts. So many scientists independently come to these conclusions, but ununionized, nothing happens. The shame of it all is that the taxpayer, who foots most of the bill for scientific discovery, gets far less bang for the buck than should be possible. I so completely agree with him but I found the whole topic maddening to read about, again. He gives ten specific examples in astrophysics of scientists suppressing the research of other scientists they thought were wrong. It is a warning for anyone who practices science by consensus. If you are someone who has looked with curiosity at the inner workings of astrophysics and wondered what being in the field is about, this book will give you keen insights.

Good ole Lord Kelvin predicted the Heat Death of the Universe, back before nuclear energy was discovered, a rather depressing scenario. Avi, while holding his head high in contemplating the universe on the cover of Milkomeda, points out that with the universe expanding, most of the galaxies we see beyond our local cluster will vanish from the sky. Their light will not reach us, because the rate of expansion of the universe exceeds the speed of light. Somehow gravity will keep our small corner of the universe intact, but alone. Well, perhaps: another depressing outcome. But maybe we could hitch a ride around that pair of black holes from the Milky Way and Andromeda as they hurl towards each other, and be out of here. Stay tuned. And buy the book. You still have time.