An ingenious case that the answers to life’s secrets are on the horizon.

LIFE'S EDGE

THE SEARCH FOR WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ALIVE

A master science writer explores the definition of life.

After reviewing the history of the concept of life, Zimmer recounts his global travels interviewing scientists who have made dazzling discoveries. However, when it comes to defining life itself, they cannot improve on the Supreme Court’s view of pornography: They’ll know it when they see it. The author quotes Frances Westall and André Brack, who wrote in 2018 “that there are as many definitions of life as there are people trying to define it.” In the end, writes Zimmer, “to be alive is not to be dead.” Despite the countless possible definitions, most biologists agree on a few hallmarks: Every creature that lives must metabolize (eat and digest), gather information about the surroundings, maintain homeostasis (keep the internal environment steady), reproduce, and evolve. Zimmer gives ample space to nitpickers who point out exceptions, and a few chapters record interviews with scientists exploring each of these hallmarks. None answer the author’s big question, but readers will not complain because Zimmer is such an engaging communicator. Confronting a possibly unanswerable question, the author explores its history, an eye-opening review of three centuries of research by intensely curious, obsessive, often obscure scientists who contributed to many revelations about the amazing attributes of life, when they weren’t deluded—e.g., 18th-century vitalists, who believed that “life contained a vital force that endowed matter with self-directed motion and the power to generate new complex bodies.” Veteran readers will not be surprised that Zimmer’s conclusion describes efforts to create life in the laboratory, a process whose possibility was suggested a century ago and whose first and many subsequent attempts produced headlines and increasingly complex but lifeless organic material. The author leaves no doubt that this century’s dazzling advances in genetics, biochemistry, DNA and RNA manipulation, and lipid membrane formation will bring home the bacon.

An ingenious case that the answers to life’s secrets are on the horizon.

Pub Date: March 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18271-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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An oft-ignored but fully convincing argument that “we cannot prevent the next pandemic without creating a healthy world.”

THE CONTAGION NEXT TIME

The Covid-19 pandemic is not a one-off catastrophe. An epidemiologist presents a cogent argument for a fundamental refocusing of resources on “the foundational forces that shape health.”

In this passionate and instructive book, Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, writes that Covid emerged because we have long neglected basic preventative measures. “We invest vast amounts of money in healthcare,” he writes, “but comparatively little in health.” Readers looking to learn how governments (mainly the U.S.) mishandled the pandemic have a flood of books to choose from, but Galea has bigger issues to raise. Better medical care will not stop the next epidemic, he warns. We must structure a world “that is resilient to contagions.” He begins by describing the current state of world health, where progress has been spectacular. Global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Malnutrition, poverty, and child mortality have dropped. However, as the author stresses repeatedly, medical progress contributed far less to the current situation than better food, clean water, hygiene, education, and prosperity. That’s the good news. More problematic is that money is a powerful determinant of health; those who have it live longer. Galea begins the bad news by pointing out the misleading statistic that Covid-19 kills less than 1% of those infected; that applies to young people in good health. For those over 60, it kills 6%, for diabetics, over 7%, and those with heart disease, over 10%. It also kills more Blacks than Whites, more poor than middle-class people, and more people without health insurance. The author is clearly not just interested in Covid. He attacks racism, sexism, and poverty in equal measure, making a plea for compassion toward stigmatized conditions such as obesity and addiction. He consistently urges the U.S. government, which has spared no expense and effort to defeat the pandemic, to do the same for social injustice.

An oft-ignored but fully convincing argument that “we cannot prevent the next pandemic without creating a healthy world.”

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-19-757642-7

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2021

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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THIS IS YOUR MIND ON PLANTS

Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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