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.
The history of life is punctuated by major transitions and inventions: fish that moved onto land, reptiles that turned into birds. But how did these happen? In Some Assembly Required, Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy Neil Shubin provides an up-to-date and utterly engrossing account of the latest thinking on the great transformations in evolution. And he has one clue for you: nothing ever begins when you think it does…
In Algae We Trust. That might just as well have been the subtitle of this book. In Slime (published in the UK as Bloom, but I read the US version), author Ruth Kassinger writes of the many fundamental, often eye-opening roles that algae play in our ecosystems. But she also travels around the world to talk to farmers, scientists, and inventors. From food to plastics to fuel, entrepreneurs are discovering that these little green powerhouses hold immense biotechnological potential.
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.
How did we get here? It’s a simple question, but as all parents will affirm, the simplest questions can have the most complicated answers. With Quarks to Culture, Tyler Volk, a professor in biology and environmental studies, looks at our human culture and goes all the way back to the beginning (yes, the very beginning) to ask: “Is there a pattern here?”. What follows is a book that should be taken as a spirited thought experiment.
Communicating the complexities and abstractions of scientific findings is not easy. Anyone who has ever slogged through yet another dense paper or muddled presentation will acknowledge this. Our universe, it seems, cares not for the human quest of understanding it. One of the things, then, that makes popular science books such a treat is that they infuse scientific findings and speculation with a certain lyricism and good storytelling. This is why we flock to authors such as Nick Lane, Richard Dawkins, Richard Fortey, and many others besides. This is why Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan remain household names decades after their death. The latter’s Pale Blue Dot segment still gives me goosebumps. With Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World, science historian Oren Harman boldly turns the concept on its head: rather than bringing poetic flair to a pop-science book, he brings scientific flair to an epic poem.
The problem with many history books is that they are written long after the facts, sometimes when the original protagonists are no longer alive. Historians or journalists often have no choice but to puzzle together the pieces of their story from eyewitness testimony or archival sources. Kin: How We Came to Know Our Microbe Relatives is a welcome exception to this rule. Written by emeritus microbiology professor John L. Ingraham, currently 94 years young, this book gives an intellectual history of the discipline of microbiology based on over seven decades of first-hand involvement and observation.
After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.
What unites deep subterranean caves, hydrothermal vents in the deep sea, our guts, cloud formation, geochemical processes, and astrobiology (the search for life beyond our planet) to name but a few things? Microbes. The tiny, single-celled organisms that we cannot see with the naked eye are everywhere. With Planet of Microbes, Ted Anton makes the point that this world is really theirs, and takes the reader on a tour of the rapid increase in our understanding of their importance, focusing on three major subjects.
From the perspective of biology, the rules for the game of life are simple: acquire energy, avoid becoming food for someone else in the process, and pass on your genetic information. This simple theme has given rise to an incredibly rich and diverse panoply of approaches and solutions. Strange Survivors, written by Puerto Rican biologist Oné R. Pagán, is a love letter to the many wonders that biology has to offer. I am sure he would approve if I said: “Prepare to be amazed!”