Review: Life’s Edge

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, Carl Zimmer. New York: Dutton, (forthcoming) 3/9/2021.

Summary: An exploration of how scientists attempt (and have failed) to define what life is and the quest to understand how life arose.

Philosophers talk about the meaning of life. Carl Zimmer offers us a glimpse into the world of scientists who are trying to define what is life. What is the definition of life and when can something be defined as alive? What about particles like viruses and prions that appear dead until they interact with other living matter? And how did life originate here, and has it in other places in our solar system and beyond?

Zimmer takes us on an exploratory tour of this question that begins in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1904 with John Butler Burke who believed he had created the missing link between inorganic and organic life when he released grains of radium into a sterile broth and discovered under a microscope that shapes were there and were dividing. He called them radiobes and he believed that the radium provided the “vital flux” to turn the constituent elements into blobs of protoplasm. Eventually, he was disproven by other scientists after enjoying fleeting fame.

Zimmer takes us through the history of research on life from van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries of microscopic life, to the growth of neural networks in laboratories. We go with him to pools near the mouths of volcanoes where some think organic life developed to discussions with researchers studying vents in the ocean. We enter caves to learn of the homeostatic relationship between hibernating bats and parasites who live off them and can kill them if they draw too much energy from the bat. We read of research demonstrating the lifelessness of soil samples on Mars and a meteorite from Mars that may evidence signs of life. I learned that red blood cells have no chromosomes and cannot divide and multiply like other cells.

Zimmer recounts the efforts of scientists to re-create the conditions under which they think life arose, whether it is in forming a strand of RNA or figuring out how to form a lipid membrane of the sort that surrounds every cell. Some scientists believe that the constituents of life have to come together fast, within 10,000 hours, because of the entropic forces that would destroy the constituents. That leads some to believe that they will achieve this in the next ten years.

In the end, he comes back to the question of the definition of life, cataloging the many scientists have proposed. He introduces us to Carol Cleland, a philosopher of science who thinks the whole enterprise is flawed and that what is needed is not a definition of life but a theory of life that helps us understand what life is.

As one reads Zimmer’s account, one realizes what is so fascinating in this quest to understand life and how it is possible. Zimmer introduces us to so many forms of life and the wonder of a planet teaming with life from microbes to every other form of life including ourselves. Some religious believers dismiss this whole quest to understand life and its origins with a wave of the hand saying, “God did it.” I’m not so quick to dismiss these quests. I realize some see nothing beyond the physical reality. Others, and I include myself here, would recognize in every scientific discovery the wonders and wisdom of God. If someone replicates the physical processes by which life arose, I will be delighted rather than distraught. My faith doesn’t rest on the gaps in our knowledge remaining gaps.

Zimmer gives us a glimpse at the reality of science. He shows us both the amazing things we are learning about the world, and the questions that remain, some on which multiple generations of scientists will work. He shows us the mistakes, and the ways that continued research and the rigorous peer review processes of science correct those mistakes. He shows us the big questions and what we still don’t know. This is great science writing!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Science Books I Would Re-read

serious adult woman with open book on street against facade of old building in university

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Some of us simply don’t pick up books on science because we fear we will never understand them. The gift of great science writers is that they can explain complex ideas for the non-specialist in a way that piques interest and never feels like the writer is talking down. One often has the sense of being in the lab or in the field with the person saying, “let me show you this!” The books I’ve listed are ones I’ve read that I’d be happy to come back to for another read. As with other posts in this series, I’ve limited myself to ten. Between the ones I’ve just left off, and those I haven’t even read once, I’m sure you will want to add to this list!

Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us. Most of us know Carson for Silent Spring, but her lyrical accounts of the wonders of life under the sea and the topography of oceans are ones I easily could read again and again in a book free of environmental advocacy.

Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. The book is still controversial, long after Gould’s death, but it is incredible writing about the Cambrian explosion of life discovered in fossil deposits.

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe. My wife turned me on to this. Greene is wonderful in explaining physics, and introducing us to multiple dimensions and the nature of string theory.

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. Hawking was probably the first to introduce me to things like the Big Bank, quarks, and the nature of time and the challenges of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Edward Larson, Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Whatever you think about evolution (and let’s not get into that here), this is a great history of how the theory developed, the controversies both outside and inside the scientific communities, and present day developments. Don’t read this for polemics, but for understanding.

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac. Strictly speaking this is more nature- than science writing, but Leopold’s careful observation of an ecosystem and his love for the land he observes makes this a wonderful read.

Matthew Ridley, Genome. What is all this “human genome” stuff? The book has a chapter for each of our 23 gene pairs, and explores how the genome provides the blueprint for our “self assembly,” genetic diseases, and the different ways genes express in men and women.

Francis Su, Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I read this just recently and it rekindled an interest in math for me. Su explores the way mathematics both answers to deep human longings and nurtures human virtues that contribute to our flourishing in life.

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell. This is a wonderful collection of essays that I probably read sometime in the 1980’s. The first essay introduced me to the truth that the mitochondria in every human being, originated in another organism, but became a critical part of our own cells. It just gets better from there.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I have friends who are astrophysicists and Tyson helped me understand things like dark matter, and what a weird and wonderful universe we inhabit.

Science writing opens our eyes to the wonders of our own bodies, other life, the planet, and our universe. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and part of a wonder-filled universe. We care for what we love. Reading such books help re-enchant a world we often take for granted.

Review: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., (forthcoming May) 2017.

Summary: A clear and concise discussion in understandable terms about the current state of our understanding of astrophysics, everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of the elements on the periodic table, and all the space between the galaxies.

The Big Bang. Quarks. Bosons. Gravity waves. Dark matter. Dark energy. Cosmic background radiation. Quasars. Pulsars. Black holes. Dwarf galaxies. Nebulae. We hear about these things on comedy shows and educational television and in science columns in newsweeklies. They suggest that the universe is even more amazing than the moon, stars, planets, and the faint band of the Milky Way we can see, along with that closest star of all, the Sun.

For as long as we have been on the planet, people have been gazing at the sky and wondering about our place in the cosmos, and how it all worked. Astrophysicists work on the second part of this question, and can tell us, at least by various physical measures, our infinitesimal size in the immensity of all things. There is the curious wonder that we can perceive and study and understand at least something of what we see by our eyes, and through the instruments we use, probe across the immense reaches of space and time. We can apply our understanding of physical laws and our observations to grasp something of the chain of causal events that result in what we see. That is what astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson do (as well as several grad student and faculty friends in astrophysics).

That’s why I wanted to read this new book by Tyson — to understand a little better what my friends are working on. And thanks to Tyson, I can say that indeed, I think I understand a bit better. For example, I understood that the first fraction of a second in the life of the universe was immensely significant to the way things are.  I learned that there was an important transition that occurred when the universe was about 380,000 years old that can be detected in the form of cosmic background telescopes, a discovery first made by some Bell Labs telecommunications researchers.

I found out that the space between the galaxies is not empty and may be one of the most interesting things astrophysicists can study. I have friends doing dark matter research, and I discovered that there may be more of this than “visible” matter. At least in terms of the physical chemistry that makes up my body, I learned that Joni Mitchell was right: we are star dust. The stuff of my body was once the stuff generated in the core of stars and in their explosions. “All the light we cannot see” is not just the title of a great novel, but also reminds us that some of the most interesting aspects of light are in portions of the spectra our eyes cannot see.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably the most well-known living writer and speaker on astrophysics, a successor in this work to the late Carl Sagan. He is both an active researcher, and has a knack for explaining this research in understandable terms while ushering us into the wonder he encounters as he studies these things. And that brings me to one of the most fascinating aspects of this book.

Tyson has inserted this statement about himself into his Wikipedia article: “Neil deGrasse Tyson, widely claimed by atheists, is actually an agnostic.” It is fascinating that he draws the title of his first three chapters from either biblical themes, or a best seller on the life of Christ: “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “On Earth as in the Heavens,” and “Let There Be Light.” Perhaps this is just cleverness in setting up his discussions of the Big Bang, the universality of physical laws, and the origins of light. But it strikes me that for Tyson, these scientific realities supplant the spiritual realities alluded to in the title references. Later in the book, he makes this clearer in his reflections on the cosmic perspective. He writes a series of statements on the cosmic perspective, a few of which I will quote here:

“The cosmic perspective is humble.

The cosmic perspective is spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious.

. . . 

The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.

The cosmic perspective shows Earth to be a mote. But it’s a precious mote and, for the moment, it’s the only home we have.

The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.”

While Tyson refuses the term “religion” for what he calls “the cosmic perspective,” it is clear that for him, this is ultimate reality, the really “real.” There is a kind of spirituality in this writing. His research teaches him humility, has a redemptive quality to it (I’m not sure what he means by this) and seems to enhance his solidarity with other human beings and his care for our common home. The laws of physics are a kind of delight to him on which he meditates day and night (cf. Psalm 19).

I’m a Christian theist, and I point these things out in Tyson neither to debate him nor denigrate him. Rather, I found his book important for understanding not only the basics of astrophysics and the current state of the research (which I did) but also for understanding the mind of this scientist, who is humbled and finds beauty in the cosmos, and who struggles with “the lonely, hazardous place” our universe is (a major reason for his agnosticism as I understand it). It helps me understand why he has captured the imagination of many through his writing and media appearances.

Tyson also makes me wonder whether we Christians might do better to enter deeply both into the wonder and the haunting questions he asks than to engage in wars against science. It makes me wonder whether we might sensitively explore what is it about us humble creatures that we have this insatiable curiosity to explore the cosmos, and a sense that despite our objective insignificance, we are significant both individually, and to one another. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry actually invites us to do a very unhurried thing and consider what we are learning about the cosmos and how it relates to the big questions each and all of us face here on earth.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.




The Month in Reviews: September 2016


September’s reading list was certainly a diverse and wide-ranging one that reflects the quirky range of my reading interests. There were two baseball books, as we come to the close of another season of America’s Pastime. There were two Inklings books, both exploring the impact of the Inklings war experiences on their writing. I featured Ohio author J. D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, and a book on the use of social media in public shaming.  I reviewed a couple of science texts, including Rachel Carson’s classic The Sea Around Us, and a new book on science and faith. There were books on social issues from micro-finance to domestic violence. And I read the usual assortment of theological texts on subjects ranging from evangelicalism’s social justice heritage to dispensational eschatology as well as a fine new book on the transition to post-college life. In all there are thirteen reviews in this list. Enjoy!

After College

After College, Erica Young Reitz. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A faith-oriented guide to navigating the transition from college to early adulthood, exploring issues of faith, relationships, community, work, calling and finances. Review

Banker to the Poor

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Yunus’ personal account of developing micro-lending and the Grameen Bank to help lift the rural poor out of poverty by providing the small loans they needed to develop their own small businesses. Review

No Place for Abuse

No Place for Abuse (2nd ed.), Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. Written for Christian communities, this work chronicles the extent of domestic violence and abuse, the presence and factors that contribute to domestic violence in households in our churches, relevant biblical texts that address domestic violence, and steps church leaders can take to address domestic violence in their midst. Review


Bottom of the NinthMichael Shapiro. New York: Times Books, 2009. The story of how two legendary figures, Branch Rickey and Casey Stengel, attempted but failed in schemes to transform the game of baseball. Review


The Sea Around UsRachel Carson. New York: Open Road Media, 2011 (first published 1951).  A survey of what is known about the oceans– including their beginnings, the dynamics of currents, tides and waves, the topography of the oceans, the life within, and our own relationship with this dominant feature of our planet. Review


EschatologyD. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider (eds.). Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2016. A compendium of essays on the future hope of Christians reflecting a dispensational premillenialist perspective. Review


So You’ve Been Publicly ShamedJon Ronson. London: Picador, 2015. Explores the use of social media for public shaming of individuals, the dark side of ourselves this reveals, and the ways those shamed deal with this experience. Review


A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great WarJoseph Loconte. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. A study of why Lewis and Tolkien, contrary to a disillusioned post-war generation, went deeper into their faith and allowed both war experience and that faith to shape their greatest works. Review


BedeviledColin Duriez. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. An exploration of the conflict of good and evil in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and how two World Wars influenced their thinking. Review


Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016. A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author. Review


Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionDonald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. Review


The Truth About Science and Religion, Fraser Fleming, foreword by Gary B. Ferngren. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A historical, scientific, and theological survey of the interaction of science and religion around the big questions of purpose, beginnings, the rise of life, the rise of human beings, the nature of mind and consciousness. Review


The NaturalBernard Malamud. London: Vintage Classics, 2002 (originally published in 1952). The story of Roy Hobbs, whose promising career in baseball is nearly ended by a strange woman with a silver bullet and his attempt at 35 for one more season of greatness. Review

Best of the Month: I’m going to go with J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It may not be the best writing represented on the list (I’ll give that nod to Rachel Carson), but I found this a compelling exploration the struggles and realities of life today among many working class Americans, a “forgotten America” whose presence has re-asserted itself in the current presidential campaign.

Quote of the Month: Rachel Carson’s nature writing is among the best there is. Here was one passage that captured my imagination, describing the process of sedimentation on the ocean floors:

“For the sediments are the materials of the most stupendous ‘snowfall’ the earth has ever seen. It began when the first rains fell on the barren rocks and set in motion the forces of erosion. It was accelerated when living creatures developed in the surface waters and the discarded little shells of lime or silica that had encased them in life began to drift downward to the bottom.  Silently, endlessly, with the deliberation of earth processes that can afford to be slow because they have so much time for completion, the accumulation of the sediments has proceeded. So little in a year, or in a human lifetime, but so enormous an amount in the life of earth and sea.”

Coming soon: In the next few days I’ll be posting reviews of a Dorothy L. Sayers mystery classic and the late Kenneth Bailey’s The Good Shepherd. I’m currently finishing up a book on the possibility of moral knowledge. I’m also reading a book by Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til on common grace and a fascinating new book with the title of How to Survive the Apocalypse, exploring the current fascination with everything from zombies to dystopian fiction. Later in October, I will be reviewing Shusako Endo’s Silence, hopefully in time for the debut of Martin Scorsese’s film version of this Japanese novelist’s work.

Happy reading!


Review: The Sea Around Us


The Sea Around UsRachel Carson. New York: Open Road Media, 2011 (first published 1951).

Summary: A survey of what is known about the oceans– including their beginnings, the dynamics of currents, tides and waves, the topography of the oceans, the life within, and our own relationship with this dominant feature of our planet.

Rachel Carson is probably best known for her book Silent Spring (reviewed here) on the environmental impacts of pesticides, notably DDT, that led to its eventual banning. However, it was The Sea Around Us, published eleven years earlier that brought Carson to national attention as a science writer. It sold over a million copies, won a National Book Award and was a New York Times bestseller.

Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface and account for 97 percent of the water on the planet. At points, oceans covered much of North America between the Appalachians and the Rockies and have left their traces to this day. Carson tells the story of oceans, mixing the latest scientific data available to her with a lyrical account of this most salient feature of our planet. Consider this passage about sedimentation:

“When I think of the floor of the deep sea, the single, overwhelming fact that possesses my imagination is the accumulation of sediments. I see the steady, unremitting, downward drift of materials from above, flake upon flake, layer upon layer–a drift that has continued for hundreds of millions of years, that will go on as long as there are seas and continents.

“For the sediments are the materials of the most stupendous ‘snowfall’ the earth has ever seen. It began when the first rains fell on the barren rocks and set in motion the forces of erosion. It was accelerated when living creatures developed in the surface waters and the discarded little shells of lime or silica that had encased them in life began to drift downward to the bottom.  Silently, endlessly, with the deliberation of earth processes that can afford to be slow because they have so much time for completion, the accumulation of the sediments has proceeded. So little in a year, or in a human lifetime, but so enormous an amount in the life of earth and sea.”

With her writing, what sounds like a dull subject, sedimentation, takes on wonder as it is likened to an unremitting snowfall. It is a skill we see over and over in her work as she takes facts and explains them in a way that captures the imagination.

The Sea Around Us introduces us to oceanography from its account of the beginnings of the oceans on a cooling planet to the inhabitants of the seas on the ocean surface and in the dark depths (I found her discussion of squid, and their ubiquity especially fascinating). She explores the seasonal cycles of life, the topography of the ocean floor, the formation of volcanic islands (and their disappearances), and the evidence of historic rises and falls of the oceans, which in the past, and likely in the future, will inundate much of North America, as well as other coastal and low areas around the world. Even when she wrote, oceans were rising and glacial melts were in process, but in her time this was still seen as merely a cyclical occurrence, unrelated to human causes. Whatever you think about these things, one thing she makes clear–significant areas where humans make a home will be under water some day. The only questions are “how soon?” and “how will we prepare for that day?”

She explores the movements of the oceans, from wave actions to tidal patterns to the vast sea currents that circulate around the globe. The final part of her work considers the impacts of the oceans on our lives, from providing us life-giving salt to functioning as the earth’s thermostat (she emphasizes the incredible heat storage capacities of the ocean and how significant a one degree rise in ocean temperature can be), and finally our human quest to sail, circumnavigate, and explore the depths of the sea.

Those who associate Carson with environmental activism will be surprised at the lack of advocacy in this book. What one encounters instead is description that captures the imagination and awakens us to the wonder that surrounds us. And perhaps this is as vital as any advocacy, because we must first love and deeply care for that for which we advocate. Carson opens our eyes to the wonder of what we might sometimes take for granted and deepens the love many of us have for the sight and sound of waves, the smell of sea air, the delight we take in the creatures of the deep and the awe we have of the power of “the sea around us.”