Davies is an astrophysicist who often writes about the famous question posed in the title of Erwin Schrîdinger’s What Is Life? (1944). Here he tries a different answer from that offered in his Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life (1995). If his new hypothesis turns out to be true, then we all end up as Martians. The author claims that life may have started on Mars and later traveled to Earth on meteorites. But what kind of alternative state of matter qualifies and describes life? This puzzle and that of biogenesis, have puzzled humanity for over 2.5 millennia, leading to many biogenetic theories, such as the “primordial soup” hypothesis. Davies tells a different story. He replaces the chemical-soup metaphor with that of “information-processing systems” in which the secret of life—the transformation of chemistry into biochemistry—lies in the ability of genetic codes to organize, process, and transmit information. No familiar law of nature can adequately account for such a complex phenomenon. “Something funny” must thus have occurred in our bio-friendly universe three billion years ago which was predestined to produce life. Like Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” Davies’s mysterious and open-ended explanation will prompt fundamentalist Christians to fill any lingering gap with their preference for divine intervention. Davies himself attempts to fill the same gap by relying on the recent discovery of rock-eating, volcanic microbes’superbugs—living deep within the earth’s geothermal vents, their temperatures rising well over boiling point. Basing his suppositions on new evidence found in meteorites in Antarctica (and despite heated contrtoversies over interpreting the evidence on these meteorites), he theorizes confidently that ancestors of our superbugs traveled to Earth via Martian asteroids. His new work offers testimony to Davies’s passionate curiosity and to masterful writing, which reads like science fiction. (Book-of-the-Month Club dual main selection/Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection)

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-83799-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1999

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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