An ingenious case that the answers to life’s secrets are on the horizon.



A master science writer explores the definition of life.

After reviewing the history of the concept of life, Zimmer recounts his global travels interviewing scientists who have made dazzling discoveries. However, when it comes to defining life itself, they cannot improve on the Supreme Court’s view of pornography: They’ll know it when they see it. The author quotes Frances Westall and André Brack, who wrote in 2018 “that there are as many definitions of life as there are people trying to define it.” In the end, writes Zimmer, “to be alive is not to be dead.” Despite the countless possible definitions, most biologists agree on a few hallmarks: Every creature that lives must metabolize (eat and digest), gather information about the surroundings, maintain homeostasis (keep the internal environment steady), reproduce, and evolve. Zimmer gives ample space to nitpickers who point out exceptions, and a few chapters record interviews with scientists exploring each of these hallmarks. None answer the author’s big question, but readers will not complain because Zimmer is such an engaging communicator. Confronting a possibly unanswerable question, the author explores its history, an eye-opening review of three centuries of research by intensely curious, obsessive, often obscure scientists who contributed to many revelations about the amazing attributes of life, when they weren’t deluded—e.g., 18th-century vitalists, who believed that “life contained a vital force that endowed matter with self-directed motion and the power to generate new complex bodies.” Veteran readers will not be surprised that Zimmer’s conclusion describes efforts to create life in the laboratory, a process whose possibility was suggested a century ago and whose first and many subsequent attempts produced headlines and increasingly complex but lifeless organic material. The author leaves no doubt that this century’s dazzling advances in genetics, biochemistry, DNA and RNA manipulation, and lipid membrane formation will bring home the bacon.

An ingenious case that the answers to life’s secrets are on the horizon.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18271-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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A welcome reference, entertaining and information-packed, for any outdoors-inclined reader.


The bad news: On any given outdoor expedition, you are your own worst enemy. The good news: If you are prepared, which this book helps you achieve, you might just live through it.

As MeatEater host and experienced outdoorsman Rinella notes, there are countless dangers attendant in going into mountains, woods, or deserts; he quotes journalist Wes Siler: “People have always managed to find stupid ways to die.” Avoiding stupid mistakes is the overarching point of Rinella’s latest book, full of provocative and helpful advice. One stupid way to die is not to have the proper equipment. There’s a complication built into the question, given that when humping gear into the outdoors, weight is always an issue. The author’s answer? “Build your gear list by prioritizing safety.” That entails having some means of communication, water, food, and shelter foremost and then adding on “extra shit.” As to that, he notes gravely, “a National Park Service geologist recently estimated that as much as 215,000 pounds of feces has been tossed haphazardly into crevasses along the climbing route on Denali National Park’s Kahiltna Glacier, where climbers melt snow for drinking water.” Ingesting fecal matter is a quick route to sickness, and Rinella adds, there are plenty of outdoorspeople who have no idea of how to keep their bodily wastes from ruining the scenery or poisoning the water supply. Throughout, the author provides precise information about wilderness first aid, ranging from irrigating wounds to applying arterial pressure to keeping someone experiencing a heart attack (a common event outdoors, given that so many people overexert without previous conditioning) alive. Some takeaways: Keep your crotch dry, don’t pitch a tent under a dead tree limb, walk side-hill across mountains, and “do not enter a marsh or swamp in flip-flops, and think twice before entering in strap-on sandals such as Tevas or Chacos.”

A welcome reference, entertaining and information-packed, for any outdoors-inclined reader.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-12969-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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A straightforward, carefully detailed presentation of how ``fruit comes from flowers,'' from winter's snow-covered buds through pollination and growth to ripening and harvest. Like the text, the illustrations are admirably clear and attractive, including the larger-than-life depiction of the parts of the flower at different stages. An excellent contribution to the solidly useful ``Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science'' series. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4-9)

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 1992

ISBN: 0-06-020055-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1991

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