Are we alone in the universe? For the moment, this question remains unanswered, though there are many ways to tackle it. Just how many was something I did not appreciate until I sunk my teeth into Harvard University Press’s new flagship astronomy title Life in the Cosmos. Written by astrobiologist Manasvi Lingam and theoretical physicist Abraham “Avi” Loeb, this is a book of truly colossal proportions, clocking in at over 1000 pages. It boldly goes where few academic books have gone before by seriously and open-mindedly considering the possibility of extraterrestrial technological intelligence on par with, or far beyond humans. I found myself gravitating towards this book on account of more than just its size.
Life most likely originated in the oceans, and it is to oceans that astronomers are looking to find life elsewhere in the universe. With the publication last year of Kevin Peter Hand’s Alien Oceans, I decided this was the right time to finally review Ocean Worlds, a book that I have been very keen to read ever since buying it some years ago. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the story of oceans on Earth and elsewhere.
In the already unusual world of viruses, retroviruses stand out for being even more so. Called “retro” because they reverse the flow of genetic information from RNA to DNA, rather than the normal DNA to RNA, they have turned out to be ancient, omnipresent, and incredibly influential. They are also important as they cause diseases such as AIDS. With Discovering Retroviruses, Anna Marie Skalka delivers a book dedicated to this particular group that is as technical as it is fascinating.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
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.
I recently read about the American microbiologist Carl Woese (1928-2012) and his discovery of a completely new group of single-celled organisms, the Archaea, in Quammen’s book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. These mysterious microbes thrive under extreme environmental conditions, so I was intrigued and keen to find out more. The French microbiologist Patrick Forterre here describes these microbes, the research that led to their discovery, and the questions and answers this has thrown up. Originally published in French in 2008 as Microbes de l’Enfer, The University of Chicago Press has now made this book available in English to a wider audience.
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.
When I reviewed Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, I remarked that microbes are everywhere. If you are willing to stretch the definition of life a bit further still, there is one entity that is even more numerous and omnipresent: the humble virus. We tend to think of viruses almost exclusively in the context of disease (see for example The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses). But, as virologist and pharmaceutical researcher Michael Cordingley shows here, they are so much more than mere pathogens and have a huge influence on evolutionary processes in all organisms. This book paints a remarkable portrait of these unusual life forms.