A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier—not always easily understandable but well worth the effort.

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LIFE AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT

FROM THE DOUBLE HELIX TO THE DAWN OF DIGITAL LIFE

Best known for sequencing the human genome, Venter (A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, 2007, etc.) now looks ahead to the possibilities for synthesizing life.

The author compares the nine months needed to achieve this in 1999—using his “whole genome shotgun method”—to the new technologies available today that can do the job in one day. Venter reprises the sequence of discoveries—from the role of DNA and the structure of the chromosome to modern techniques of “genetic engineering,” now called “synthetic biology”—and he situates the current work of his own research teams at the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute in the broader context of similar ongoing research—e.g., at MIT, “a sophisticated genetic circuit has been assembled” to detect indicators of cancer and release “a tumor-killing factor.” Venter then explains how his initial success led him to two new projects: a “new method of environmental shotgun sequencing” that samples ocean waters and has resulted in the discovery of more than 80 million previously unknown genes and an estimated “billion trillion organisms for every human on the planet”; and the creation of a synthetic genome by transferring a chromosome from one species of bacteria to another, in effect creating a new species synthetically. The author hopes to be able to determine the minimum number of genes needed to maintain a cell's life and is also exploring the hypothesis that the evolution of life has not only occurred gradually due to random genetic mutations. He believes that the addition of chromosomes also occurred, providing a mechanism for dramatic leaps. He looks to a future in which robots will be able to sequence alien life on another planet and transmit the information back to Earth.

A fascinating glimpse at a scientific frontier—not always easily understandable but well worth the effort.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-670-02540-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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