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LIFE'S EDGE

THE SEARCH FOR WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ALIVE

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. 7, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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THE BACKYARD BIRD CHRONICLES

An ebullient nature lover’s paean to birds.

A charming bird journey with the bestselling author.

In his introduction to Tan’s “nature journal,” David Allen Sibley, the acclaimed ornithologist, nails the spirit of this book: a “collection of delightfully quirky, thoughtful, and personal observations of birds in sketches and words.” For years, Tan has looked out on her California backyard “paradise”—oaks, periwinkle vines, birch, Japanese maple, fuchsia shrubs—observing more than 60 species of birds, and she fashions her findings into delightful and approachable journal excerpts, accompanied by her gorgeous color sketches. As the entries—“a record of my life”—move along, the author becomes more adept at identifying and capturing them with words and pencils. Her first entry is September 16, 2017: Shortly after putting up hummingbird feeders, one of the tiny, delicate creatures landed on her hand and fed. “We have a relationship,” she writes. “I am in love.” By August 2018, her backyard “has become a menagerie of fledglings…all learning to fly.” Day by day, she has continued to learn more about the birds, their activities, and how she should relate to them; she also admits mistakes when they occur. In December 2018, she was excited to observe a Townsend’s Warbler—“Omigod! It’s looking at me. Displeased expression.” Battling pesky squirrels, Tan deployed Hot Pepper Suet to keep them away, and she deterred crows by hanging a fake one upside down. The author also declared war on outdoor cats when she learned they kill more than 1 billion birds per year. In May 2019, she notes that she spends $250 per month on beetle larvae. In June 2019, she confesses “spending more hours a day staring at birds than writing. How can I not?” Her last entry, on December 15, 2022, celebrates when an eating bird pauses, “looks and acknowledges I am there.”

An ebullient nature lover’s paean to birds.

Pub Date: April 23, 2024

ISBN: 9780593536131

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2024

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

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