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Nature Fast and Nature Slow - Nicholas Money ****

This is a lovely concept, a cosmic zoom of biology, where the zoom is not in space but in time. Each chapter looks at biological actions that occur in a particularly timeframe, starting with those that occur in a fraction of a second and running up to billions of years.

The first chapter, 'Ballistics', is absolutely fascinating as we start with the intensely quick mechanisms used by, for example, jellyfish to fire tiny poison darts into prey (or people), or by ferns to blast out spores, events taking place in a matter of thousandths of seconds. I can just imagine a TV show where these actions are displayed in elegant, ultra-slow motion. 

This chapter is great, but also illustrates a recurrent problem in the book: Nicholas Money gives us too many examples. A good number of the chapters open with a story, but then present the reader with a whole sequence of fact statements - this does this; that does that - which are exhausting to read. We could do with the writing to slow down a bit, show us fewer examples but explain in more detail. So, for example, we are told that 'mushroom spores employed a "surface tension catapult", powered by the motion of water droplets, to fling themselves from their gills.' I'd have loved to have read more on exactly what this means, but the next sentence is off on a different topic.

As we move up through the different timescales, the mid section starts to feel a bit samey, but the book comes alive again towards the end - I particularly enjoyed the final chapter 'Beginnings' where we are looking back billions of years to the origins of life on Earth. Although Money can verge on purple prose occasionally, he benefited from a looser narrative approach without overloading us with different examples.

What certainly comes through is Money's personality and interest in the topic. On the one hand this introduces a rather dated scientist's downer on philosophy - you can almost see the author's lip curl when he talks about philosophers, being scathing, for example, of Nagel's 'What Is it Like to be a Bat?' essay and its implications. On the other hand, Money's honesty in his impressions of other scientists and their theories is impressively candid, such as his assessment of researchers who claimed plants had emotion-like  responses: 'These clowns were gullible at best, foolish in their dismissal of control experiments and besotted with fantasies about the inner emotional lives of the botanical world.'

Although there were aspects of the book that didn't entirely work for me, overall I enjoyed it and thought it a really interesting and different take on the subject of biology.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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