One objection sometimes raised against the search for extraterrestrial life is that our planet is rich with bizarre life forms that we still poorly understand. As a biologist, you are usually so close to the subject that you sometimes forget just how otherwordly our home planet can be. With his beautifully written book Entangled Life, biologist Merlin Sheldrake shook me out of that daze by offering a truly mind-opening book on fungi. Excitingly, he does so without floating off into speculative or esoteric territory.
Did life arise merely by accident? Many scientists feel uncomfortable with talk of goal-directedness and greater plans, as it reeks more of religion and theology than rational explanation. And with creationists lurking, the risk of “smuggling God in through the back door” under scientific pretences (as Richard Dawkins put it) is something to be wary of. Without descending into this territory, Universe in Creation might skirt dangerously close to it for some. In turns lyrical, unsettling, and, yes, speculative, this book argues that life may be written into the most basic laws of nature.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
It is tempting to start this review with a nod to Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song. But there is a dark side to our use and especially abuse of alcohol, lethal traffic accidents being just one of them. Why are we so enamoured with our booze? With The Drunken Monkey, Professor of Integrative Biology Robert Dudley puts forward the idea that it is linked to the dietary preferences of our primate ancestors who used alcohol as a cue to identify ripe fruit. Is this another evolutionary just-so story?
When it comes to social insects, ants and bees get all the love. But, if you pardon the pun of the book’s title, termites are a bit of an underbug. While finishing up a previous writing assignment, author Lisa Margonelli got on the trail of the termite sometime in 2008 and spend the next decade obsessing over them. Tailing various scientists and sitting in on their day-to-day work, she here spins a wide-ranging tale about termites and the research they have inspired. The result is a hypnotic book that ranges well beyond this humble insect.
Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.
When I reviewed the book Defending Biodiversity: Environmental Science and Ethics, one of the reasons that was discussed as to why we should protect nature was the possibility of undiscovered pharmaceutical drugs. Seasoned ethnobotanist Robert A. Voeks shows that this so-called jungle medicine narrative has a long history. Though partially true, it equally contains parts myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia. However, if you are expecting a sceptical critique of superstitious indigenous practices – I was initially wondering whether the book would – no, this book delivers something far more interesting. Without belittling traditional knowledge, Voeks instead exposes the flaws in our interpretation and delivers a nuanced and fascinating ethnobotanical history lesson to boot.
DNA has lodged itself in the public imagination as the “blueprint” of life and as other, often slightly deceiving, metaphors. But what happens next? How do organisms actually get anything done with the information coded in DNA? For biologists, this is standard textbook fare: DNA is copied into single-stranded RNA which is then translated, three letters at a time, into amino acids that, when strung together, make up the workhorses of the cell: proteins. The cell organ, or organelle, that does the latter part is the ribosome, which Venki Ramakrishnan introduces here in Gene Machine. He has written a riveting first-hand account of the academic race to describe its structure, and how, in the process, he bagged a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009.
Who could refuse such an invitation to dinner? In fourteen short chapters, Dinner with Darwin provides a smörgåsbord of topics on the role of food in human evolution and vice versa, many of which have been covered here in recent reviews. This is Jonathan Silvertown’s fourth book with the University of Chicago Press, and based on this, I would love to read his other books as well. Care to join me at the table?