Provides plenty of gee-whiz moments, but Zimmer needn’t have used every single index card from his formidable research.

MICROCOSM

E. COLI AND THE NEW SCIENCE OF LIFE

The author explains why that bug that lives in your intestine has been a bonanza for biologists.

Though the toxic strain of E. coli is the one that makes news—usually thanks to contaminated food—many strains are weak, harmless and/or helpful, notes seasoned science writer Zimmer (Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, 2005, etc.). Newborns are infected with E. coli from birth, and after settling in the gut, the bacteria forms an ecosystem with other bugs that helps us digest foods, make useful proteins and fend off pathogens. The bug’s main claim to fame, however, is the debt owed by genetics and the biotech industry to E. coli and the viruses (bacteriophages) that infect it. Ingenious experiments by a constellation of Nobelists including Salvador Luria, Max Delbrück and Joshua Lederberg established the startling fact that bacteria have sex; that’s how they exchange genes and spread useful mutations such as resistance to antibiotics. The phages that infect E. coli can contribute their genes as well. Zimmer goes on at length to describe how E. coli adapts to life’s vicissitudes. Too hot an environment? Make heat-shock proteins. Only lactose and not glucose for food? Switch on genes that make lactose-digesting enzymes. Need to get away fast? Grow flagella. And more. In somewhat confusing order, the author piles on descriptions and digressions into feedback circuitry, bacterial sensors, bacterial and human evolution, specialization of bacteria within colonies and cooperation across species in aggregates of bacteria in “biofilms.” He explains how E. coli became the darling of the biotech industry when geneticists realized that they could splice human genes into the bacteria and generate useful products like insulin. He rehashes the controversies over recombinant DNA and philosophizes about current concerns regarding genetically modified crops and cross-species hybridization. He ends with an excursion into astrobiology and what forms life might take Out There.

Provides plenty of gee-whiz moments, but Zimmer needn’t have used every single index card from his formidable research.

Pub Date: May 6, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-375-42430-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2008

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

Did you like this book?

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Did you like this book?

more