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
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: