Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nature. Show all posts

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Book Review: The Emergence of Life on Earth, by Iris Fry

Iris Fry's book The Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview is a detailed but non-technical account of attempts to explain how life emerged from non-living material. I have posted a number of articles on the book and closely related subjects here.

I liked the book a lot, and much of the material was new to me, even though I have long been interested in the subject. Fry is a clear and careful writer, and there are endnotes enough for any scholar - the book includes a sixteen page bibliography. At first I was a bit suspicious of her historical and philosophical point of view, but in retrospect, it is an excellent vantage point. Although a good portion of the book is "ancient history," that is, prior to 1953 and the molecular biology revolution, the majority is focussed on the developments since.

She excels at concisely presenting the perspectives and starting points of major investigators, and they are highly various. Like the fabled blind men of Benares confronting various parts of an elephant, the origin of life investigators are forced to reach for similes, and all of them seem to fall short of capturing the essence.

A couple of thousand years of progress in biology since Aristotle have brought us a great deal of knowledge about how life works, but so far that knowledge hasn't seemed to bring us any closer to the solution of the mystery of mysteries of the origin.

The last chapter of her book is devoted to the possibilities of extraterrestial life, which she(and I) find highly promising. Of course if such life could be found in the solar system, it could hardly help but clarify the puzzle of origins.

This is a story that does not yet have a proper ending. Neither an understanding of the origin of life nor any especially promising approach is yet on the horizon. Nonetheless, information accumulates and many interesting experiments wait to be done. This is long shot science still, but the payoff could be huge.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Feeding the Birds

A lesson in unintended consequences.

We had a cold snap recently, and rare snow was predicted, so I put out a bird feeder with some seed. I hung it from a beam above our covered patio, high enough, so I thought, to be safe from cats.

Looking out this morning I was a bit surprised to see no birds near it. Then, looking a bit further, a splash of feathers on the lawn, presided over by a large hawk, enjoying his breakfast - one of the finches I had unsuspectingly lured to his doom.

Hawks, I guess, need to eat too - but not on my lawn. I think I will need to rethink the bird feeding thing - maybe put the feeder in one of the Afghan pines. The threat from cats may be greater, but there will be more cover and concealment.