Many readers will find the equations incomprehensible, but they will relish a lucid, provocative argument that the dazzling...

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THE EQUATIONS OF LIFE

HOW PHYSICS SHAPES EVOLUTION

An insightful argument that evolution, despite producing complex creatures as different as bacteria, bugs, and humans, must obey scientific laws.

“Physics explains much about why living things look like they do; evolutionary biology provides much of the explanation about how they become like they are.” So writes Cockell (Astrobiology/Univ. of Edinburgh; Astrobiology: Understanding Life in the Universe, 2015), the director of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, in his latest, and he proceeds to make a convincing case. Laws set limits. There is life at temperatures above that of boiling water and below freezing, but not by much. When water is absent or locked up in extremely salty environments, life cannot exist. Honey doesn’t spoil not because it contains any toxins but because its water is unavailable. Our planet’s life is carbon-based and requires a universal solvent, water. Might creatures elsewhere in the universe form themselves from closely related silicon and prefer other common liquids such as ammonia or methane? Moving smoothly from physics to chemistry, biology, and beyond, the author is an amiable guide through some knotty scientific thickets. Ignoring the taboo on equations in popular science writing, Cockell sprinkles them liberally to illustrate their (relative) simplicity. Perhaps the simplest, P = F/A (pressure equals force over area), is critical to the mole, a burrowing animal designed to shift soil by maximizing the force over a small area. Evolution eliminates less efficient burrowers, so all moles, many entirely unrelated, look alike. “If physics and biology are tightly coupled,” writes Cockell, “then life outside Earth, if such life exists, might be remarkably similar to life on Earth, and terrestrial life might be less an idiosyncrasy of one experiment in evolution, but a template for much of life in the universe.”

Many readers will find the equations incomprehensible, but they will relish a lucid, provocative argument that the dazzling variety of organisms produced by 4 billion years of evolution may seem unbounded, but all follow universal laws.

Pub Date: June 19, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5416-1759-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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