Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.
Beware the virus. If there is one message physician and evolutionary biologist Frank Ryan is hammering home with this book, it is this. Viruses are absolutely everywhere and more numerous even than microbes. So much so that Ryan speaks of the virosphere rather than the biosphere. But more than harbingers of disease, they are also agents of evolutionary invention. Now why does that sound familiar?
DNA recovered from archaeological remains, so-called ancient DNA, has caused a revolution in our understanding of human evolution (see my review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). In my review of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, I wondered what analyses of ancient DNA would reveal about the domestication of dogs from wolves. I have not had to wait long to find out. Geneticist Bryan Sykes here tells that story, and how man’s best friend subsequently radiated into today’s riot of breeds.
After I recently finished Carl Zimmer’s new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, I noticed there was one mechanism of heredity he mentioned only ever so briefly: horizontal gene transfer. Since it does not play a large role in humans, it is understandable he left it aside. And doing it justice would have required almost another book. Luckily, science writer David Quammen is here to give us that book.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.
Every academic discipline has a few, the contrarian naysayers who steadfastly believe their idea is true, even it flies in the face of natural laws and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Physicists have to contend with inventors of perpetual motion machines, astronomers and geographers have to put up with the growing legion of flat-earthers, and palaeontologists are now faced with this. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Brian J. Ford and his amazing aquatic dinosaurs.