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The Spark of Life by Christopher Wills & Jeffrey Bada

Science, Perseus Publishing  (hardback), 2000

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

There are few subjects in contemporary science more maddening than the question of life's origin, or origins.  Hearkening back to an Earth we would not recognize (a planet in the throes of accretionary formation, with an atmosphere noxious to life as we know it today), there are so many variables and problems with the notion of life spontaneously self-assembling, that this fundamental question has recently taken on a theological cast.  As scientists learn more and more about the internal structure of the cell and about the reproductive capacities of the proteins and enzymes that form the building blocks of all living cells, they come closer to being able to replicate life or its early precursors under laboratory conditions.  How near are they, and why should we care?

This discipline has expanded dramatically over the last two decades, and the book is really the collective story of many scientists investigating properties of life at the various extremes of habitability.  It places such icons of contemporary science reporting as fossil relics in Mars rocks, endolithic microorganisms, and hydrothermal vent communities in their proper
perspective, and attempts to apply the principles of Darwinian natural selection to the concept of a primordial terrestrial soup.

This is a very difficult subject to develop for a lay audience, as I found out when I tried to "sell" a PBS special on the subject to the National Academy of Sciences a few years ago.  The cutting edge science crosses disciplinary boundaries, and even challenges cherished scientific shibboleths still clung to by the last generation. These two authors, both university scientists, have done an admirable job of finding the right level of discourse to completely describe the subject's complexities without lapsing into terminological gibberish or, alternatively, over-simplifying.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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