FINALIST FOR THE PEN/E.O. WILSON LITERARY SCIENCE WRITING AWARD***A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2021***A SCIENCE NEWS FAVORITE BOOK OF 2021***A SMITHSONIAN TOP TEN SCIENCE BOOK OF 2021
“Stories that both dazzle and edify… This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself.” —Siddhartha Mukherjee, New York Times Book Review
We all assume we know what life is, but the more scientists learn about the living world—from protocells to brains, from zygotes to pandemic viruses—the harder they find it is to locate life’s edge.
Carl Zimmer investigates one of the biggest questions of all: What is life? The answer seems obvious until you try to seriously answer it. Is the apple sitting on your kitchen counter alive, or is only the apple tree it came from deserving of the word? If we can’t answer that question here on earth, how will we know when and if we discover alien life on other worlds? The question hangs over some of society’s most charged conflicts—whether a fertilized egg is a living person, for example, and when we ought to declare a person legally dead.
Life's Edge is an utterly fascinating investigation that no one but one of the most celebrated science writers of our generation could craft. Zimmer journeys through the strange experiments that have attempted to re-create life. Literally hundreds of definitions of what that should look like now exist, but none has yet emerged as an obvious winner. Lists of what living things have in common do not add up to a theory of life. It's never clear why some items on the list are essential and others not. Coronaviruses have altered the course of history, and yet many scientists maintain they are not alive. Chemists are creating droplets that can swarm, sense their environment, and multiply. Have they made life in the lab?
Whether he is handling pythons in Alabama or searching for hibernating bats in the Adirondacks, Zimmer revels in astounding examples of life at its most bizarre. He tries his own hand at evolving life in a test tube with unnerving results. Charting the obsession with Dr. Frankenstein's monster and how the world briefly believed radium was the source of all life, Zimmer leads us all the way into the labs and minds of researchers engineering life from scratch.
"The question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river," writes journalist Zimmer (She Has Her Mother's Laugh) in this stimulating inquiry into biological fundamentals. He explores scientific phenomena that challenge simplistic concepts of what life and intelligence consist of (such as the notion that life is "something that sustained itself through chemical reactions"). Among his subjects are a girl who was declared brain-dead in 2013, but went on growing for years; hibernating bats whose metabolisms all but stop; and hypotheses about what creatures might lurk in the half-frozen sea of a moon of Saturn (namely, life that wouldn't need sunlight). The author travels to laboratories, caves, and botanical gardens for colorful depictions of cutting-edge experiments, as with his reportage on a slime mold without neurons that "followed the trail of sugar into the cul-de-sac and hit the acetate wall. But it did not give up its search. It sprouted tentacles to either side." Zimmer discusses scientists' various definitions of life as well as different schools of thought, such as "vitalists," who believe life has a purpose, and "mechanists," who believe that life is "made up of parts that work together, much like a clock." The result is a pop science tour de force that extracts provocative insights from life's oddities.