Author: Carl Zimmer
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Summary: This was interesting and clear, full of new-to-me biology stories, and really made me think.
This book was one of several I spotted on the new books shelf at my library and impulsively picked up based on reviews from Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. The others were Uncaring and The Plague Year. I enjoyed both of those books a lot, but this was my favorite of the three. In this book, author Carl Zimmer explores what it means for something to be alive. He primarily does this by looking at cases where whether or not something is alive is in question. This led to some fascinating corners of biology research that I’ve not read about in any other pop science book. The question itself is interesting and the test cases the author explored were incredible.
The writing in this book was fantastic. It’s engaging and clear, without sacrificing precision or the use of necessary scientific terminology. I enjoyed learning along with the author. I always like hearing from authors who learn by visiting scientists in their labs. It adds a personal component to the story and makes it clear that science isn’t just text books, but an endeavor that’s happening now. The specific research being done here can be unsettling and thought-provoking, kicking off with a scientist growing model brains in the lab. Are they alive? Are they aware? Are they human? Well, that depends on how you define those terms.
One section of the book covered the history of how we think about life. This was my least favorite part of the book – the most likely to include stories I’d read before, the least current and challenging – but I still enjoyed it. It was interesting to see that the way people defined life changed over time and also helpful for getting me to think through many possible definitions. It was somewhat entertaining to hear about the “basic” things we know today that people once got completely wrong. I appreciated that this section was book-ended by more modern research though, since I thought those sections were this book’s real strength.