Skip to main content

A World From Dust - Ben McFarland ***

This is, without doubt, one of the strangest popular science books I've ever read. A quote in the blurb says 'this book is very approachable for people with a minimal background in chemistry,' though given the author of this remark is a professor of geobiology, it's tempting to wonder how he knows what would be approachable to such a person. 

Where he's definitely right, though, is when he says 'in ways that have not been attempted by earlier writers on the topic.' I have never before read a science book quite like this. The reason is that you will generally read about physics the way a physicist would look at it, or about biology as understood by a biologist. This reframes all the science it uses as seen by a chemist. The result is novel, certainly, though I'm not convinced it makes the subjects more approachable - instead, for me, it obscures the message.

In Ben McFarland's obsessive attempt to represent any science from a chemistry viewpoint, what he writes can sometimes be confusing. At times, it even sounds worryingly like the way pseudoscience uses scientific terminology e.g. 'Energy rate density (ERD) is the ratio of watts to kilograms. As such, the ERD for a system measures the river of energy that is spread out as it flows through a system. If the river flows more quickly and more energy is processed, then the ERD increases, too.' 

Having said all that, there is some interesting material in the book. McFarland challenges the great biologist and science communicator Steven J. Gould, who suggested that if you rewound the 'tape of life' and played it again, things would have turned out to be very different. According to McFarland, everything is so limited by chemistry, that the new history of life would seem extremely familiar. That's fair enough, though I think McFarland exaggerates Gould's point to be able to challenge it, which he does repeatedly. I don't think Gould was really suggesting that another run of the development of life would produced silicon-based lifeforms using arsenic where we would use phosphorus. Rather, Gould was suggesting that within a very basic related framework, many of the outcomes were dictated by chance in a hugely complex (and indeed chaotic) system, meaning that the results would be likely to be significantly different to lifeforms we see today.

However, if you overlook McFarland's obsession with proving Gould wrong, his exploration of how very few elements could play the part they do in living creatures is genuinely absorbing, especially where he demonstrates the importance of size, charge and bond strengths as determiners of the possible outcomes. Much of the book focuses on how life might have developed, seen from his unique chemist's viewpoint. This isn't the best book to get a feel for the nature of biological life and the complexity that is involved - a far better read on that subject is Nick Lane's The Vital Question. Yet it's impossible to deny that McFarland's unique way of looking at things gives new insights to the reader on the topic established in the subtitle: how the periodic table shaped life.

I personally found the approach and style irritating (and struggled with most of the fuzzy illustrations). But the book may well work for other readers, especially if they have a chemistry background. And this is a a true, brave attempt to be different in approach to popular science writing, which must be applauded.

Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…