Skip to main content

Genesis – Robert M. Hazen *****

Genesis is one of those titles that could have many meanings: in Robert Hazen’s book, all is made clear in the subtitle: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin. It’s not exactly a new quest – in fact attempts to explain our origin go even further back than the first book of the Bible, and there have been experiments trying to recreate the “primordial soup”, perhaps with a little lightning thrown in, for many years. Then there’s the idea that the basic organic molecules that would eventually lead to life arrived on the Earth in a meteor – originally posed by the great Fred Hoyle, and after much dismissal by biologists getting something of a revival in the twenty-first century.
What Hazen initially sets out to do is to test yet another theory. Now that life has been discovered around the boiling hot, high pressure vents under the sea, is it possible that life started under these sorts of conditions? It’s quite an attractive hypothesis. Getting the basic building blocks of carbon chemistry to work in a water environment is tricky without specialist catalysts – but could things be different under high temperature and pressure? Hazen, originally a geologist, is pulled in to provide an experimental test by a colleague.
Don’t be put off by the rather stodgy foreword and preface (the book would frankly have been much better without them) – jump straight to the prologue, which describes Hazen being pulled into the project, and his setting up an experimental test for the possibility in a warm narrative style. It’s very engaging, and good to hear, for example, of his struggle to seal a tiny gold pressure vessel (anyone who messed up experiments in high school or college science will feel great sympathy) and the cunning solution he resorted to.
After the prologue, things get slightly less personal as Hazen begins to expound the different ways of getting to an idea of how life was first formed, but bear with it – he’s soon back to anecdote mode. Hazen is particularly good at describing experiments. The reader gets a real and rare insight into what actually happens in a scientific experiment, as he describes using “everyday” technology ike a mass spectrometer, that’s pretty exotic to most of us. It’s impossible not to be caught up with his infectious enthusiasm as Hazen seems to skip from lab to lab, asking for a spot of assistance from different researchers, just as he himself is pulled into various pieces of work.
If this all sounds a touch idealized and lacking the less pleasant side of the scientific community, Hazen also gives us a wonderful description of a pair of scientists locking horns over conflicting interpretation of some evidence, one acting in way that verges on the scary, looming up near his rival as he gave a presentation and staring at him from beside the podium as if he were trying to put him off – it’s like a debate in the British parliament without the protective table and dispatch boxes to keep the two front benches from assaulting each other.
Although Hazen starts off with his “bottom up” attempt – start from nothing and create the elements of life, he gives plenty of coverage also to the “top down” approach of trying to work back through the fossil record to the most basic and oldest forms of life (it’s such a sample that’s under debate in the clash at the conference mentioned above). A fair amount of time is also given to emergence, the idea that complexity can develop from simplicity without guidance. The last few chapters of the book lose impetus a fraction, but are still highly readable. It’s a marvellous combination of expounding theory and leading us through the realities of experiment in a personal fashion. Highly recommended.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…