Not necessarily for casual readers, but for the scientifically curious, a challenging book that presents ideas about the...




An evolutionary biochemist argues that while single-cell life emerged early in Earth’s 4-billion-year history, complex life arose only some 2 billion years ago as the result of a rare, even freakish, event.

Lane (Evolutionary Biology/Univ. Coll. London; Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, 2009) is known as a writer of popular science, but this is a rigorous work that requires close reading and the ability—and willingness—to tackle and comprehend complex technical processes, such as chemiosmotic coupling and the ATP synthase. The rare event was an endosymbiosis between two single-cell prokaryotes, forming a eukaryote, a complex cell. When this happened, mitochondria formed from the cell that was captured inside the host cell and continued to live in the new organism. The acquisition of mitochondria changed everything, greatly expanding the cell’s genome and volume. Mitochondria contain genes in their DNA that differ from the genes in the cell nucleus and that mutate much faster than those in the nucleus. This high mutation rate lies behind our aging and certain congenital diseases such as cancer. Mitochondria may even have given rise to sex, which is necessary to maintain the function of genes in large genomes. To aid readers, Lane includes line drawings, diagrams, and black-and-white photographs, many with lengthy captions that also require close attention. A helpful glossary provides definitions of technical terms. The author writes with enthusiasm, generously gives credit to other scientists in his field, and freely acknowledges that some of his ideas may be wrong. Curiously, an epilogue reports that in 2010, Japanese scientists found an organism next to a hydrothermal vent in the Pacific Ocean that suggests that perhaps that rare event of 2 billion years ago recently happened once again.

Not necessarily for casual readers, but for the scientifically curious, a challenging book that presents ideas about the most intricate processes that link genes and energy.

Pub Date: July 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-08881-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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


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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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