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Book Review: Life Ascending - The 10 Great Inventions of Evolution

28 June 2010

By Dr Alex Dedman

Postdoctoral researcher in genetics, University College London

Appeared in BioNews 564

Life Ascending: The 10 Great Inventions of Evolution

By Dr Nick Lane

Published by Profile Books

ISBN-10: 1861978189, ISBN-13: 978-1861978189

Buy this book from Amazon UK

'Life Ascending: The 10 Great Inventions of Evolution' by Dr Nick Lane

Be warned, Life Ascending is not a good book for reading on the tube, or any public transport for that matter. It is a book which asks for a locked oak-panelled library, a favourite high-backed leather armchair, a crackling fire, and an excellent command of the English language. That is, there was more than one non-science word in there which went right over my comprehensive-educated head.

In his latest book, Nick Lane takes on the gruelling task of explaining 10 wonders of biological science that are, in his opinion, the most astounding, exciting and important contributors to the story of life. This is no mean feat, as unsurprisingly many of these events have already been well documented in popular science literature. Or just at school. Any man who takes it upon himself to describe in an interesting and non-snoozeworthy manner exactly how photosynthesis grinds out energy is a heavy-weight science writer up for a challenge. But as usual, Dr Lane handles this and other topics with aplomb. Not for he the easy subjects (although he does have a chapter on sex, but everyone deserves a break). Be it crazy jumpin' genes or just the everyman krebs cycle, each topic is explained eloquently and with exquisite grace. As always, the author more than demonstrates his talent for getting across complex scientific ideas in a fresh and illuminating manner, with just the right touch of humour.

Scattered throughout the book and helping to wash the hardcore science down are wonderfully interesting snippets about the scientists behind the ideas. Stories of who they were, how they came up with the ideas, and most excitingly who they were fighting with at the time are reverently documented. And whilst these anecdotes often do not help with the long-term PR campaign trying to sell scientists as 'not that mad', Dr Lane's tone is unwaveringly respectful. In fact, these stories really do help to highlight the bizarre and often-contrary way academia can work; how often the greatest of theories now considered as common 'fact' are only thought of as such due to the relentless belligerence, stubbornness, and sheer bloody-mindedness of a few individuals.

In short, I learnt a lot of things from this book, which I could regurgitate to others at a later date - a sure sign of a good science book. Reading Life Ascending is like trying to get into a single-person, snug-fitting alpine sleeping bag. It takes time, dedication and a bit of effort to get comfortable, but once you are in there you never want to leave.

Buy Life Ascending: The 10 Great Inventions of Evolution from Amazon UK.


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