Skip to main content

A World From Dust - Ben McFarland ***

This is, without doubt, one of the strangest popular science books I've ever read. A quote in the blurb says 'this book is very approachable for people with a minimal background in chemistry,' though given the author of this remark is a professor of geobiology, it's tempting to wonder how he knows what would be approachable to such a person. 

Where he's definitely right, though, is when he says 'in ways that have not been attempted by earlier writers on the topic.' I have never before read a science book quite like this. The reason is that you will generally read about physics the way a physicist would look at it, or about biology as understood by a biologist. This reframes all the science it uses as seen by a chemist. The result is novel, certainly, though I'm not convinced it makes the subjects more approachable - instead, for me, it obscures the message.

In Ben McFarland's obsessive attempt to represent any science from a chemistry viewpoint, what he writes can sometimes be confusing. At times, it even sounds worryingly like the way pseudoscience uses scientific terminology e.g. 'Energy rate density (ERD) is the ratio of watts to kilograms. As such, the ERD for a system measures the river of energy that is spread out as it flows through a system. If the river flows more quickly and more energy is processed, then the ERD increases, too.' 

Having said all that, there is some interesting material in the book. McFarland challenges the great biologist and science communicator Steven J. Gould, who suggested that if you rewound the 'tape of life' and played it again, things would have turned out to be very different. According to McFarland, everything is so limited by chemistry, that the new history of life would seem extremely familiar. That's fair enough, though I think McFarland exaggerates Gould's point to be able to challenge it, which he does repeatedly. I don't think Gould was really suggesting that another run of the development of life would produced silicon-based lifeforms using arsenic where we would use phosphorus. Rather, Gould was suggesting that within a very basic related framework, many of the outcomes were dictated by chance in a hugely complex (and indeed chaotic) system, meaning that the results would be likely to be significantly different to lifeforms we see today.

However, if you overlook McFarland's obsession with proving Gould wrong, his exploration of how very few elements could play the part they do in living creatures is genuinely absorbing, especially where he demonstrates the importance of size, charge and bond strengths as determiners of the possible outcomes. Much of the book focuses on how life might have developed, seen from his unique chemist's viewpoint. This isn't the best book to get a feel for the nature of biological life and the complexity that is involved - a far better read on that subject is Nick Lane's The Vital Question. Yet it's impossible to deny that McFarland's unique way of looking at things gives new insights to the reader on the topic established in the subtitle: how the periodic table shaped life.

I personally found the approach and style irritating (and struggled with most of the fuzzy illustrations). But the book may well work for other readers, especially if they have a chemistry background. And this is a a true, brave attempt to be different in approach to popular science writing, which must be applauded.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinct…

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …