November 20, 2008

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The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body, by David Macaulay with Richard Walker (Houghton Mifflin, 2008, 336 pages)

In The Way Things Work (1988) and The New Way Things Work (1998), Caldecott-winner David Macaulay showed us the inner workings of CD players and computer mice and pulleys and levers, all drawn in eye-catching colored pencil and watercolor. Now he has turned his attention to the human body.

Macaulay’s books make technical details very accessible — enjoyable, even. His drawing labeled “A Day at the Spleen” shows the organ as a factory whose conveyor belt carries worn-out red blood cells to their demolition before shipping the detritus to the liver.

This makes a welcome supplement to your dry old textbook, or a fun coffee-table book for the biology-inclined.

Richard Walker’s text nicely supports the illustrations, with a few paragraphs per drawing. This is especially important when you’re not sure what’s to scale and what’s not. I wondered: How big are the carbon dioxide molecule and the oxygen molecule compared to a blood cell? How exactly do they cross the capillary wall — do they ooze through? Are there doorways? The text answered these questions. On the other hand, the text mentions hemoglobin, but that’s nowhere in the illustration.

Eustachian tubes, by the by, are also nowhere to be found in this book (I know because I wanted to prove to my son that his ears are connected to his throat).

And elsewhere, when the text told me “ATP … is everywhere in the cell, and when it is called upon to fuel a reaction, it easily…,” I thought, hold up there — “called upon”? Does it have a phone?

So, again — a perfect supplement to your standard-issue textbook.

You’re not going to pass the MCAS on the strength of this book alone.

But I’m sure that was never the point.

The Way We Work may raise as many questions as it answers, but so does every Scientific American article I read, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I, for one, am left mostly with a feeling of wonder and a desire to corral a working biochemist and shadow him or her at work. Not a bad effect for a book to have. Frustrating, but still better than never having loved, if you catch my drift.

Just in time for gift-giving season, this Macaulay book is a solid A-. —Lisa Parsons