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In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature [Hardcover]

by John Whitfield
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 1, 2006 0309096812 978-0309096812
For centuries, scientists have dreamt of discovering an underlying unity to nature. Science now offers powerful explanations for both the dazzling diversity and striking similarities seen in the living world. Life is complicated. It is truly the “entangled bank” that Charles Darwin described. But scientists are now discovering that energy is the unifying force that joins all life on Earth. Visionary biologists have advanced a new theory that explains how the natural world—from the tiniest amoeba to the greatest rain forest—is constructed, providing a fresh perspective on the essential interconnectivity of living systems. This revolutionary theory explains a variety of phenomena—helping us understand why a shrew eats its bodyweight in food each day, why a mammal’s heart beats about 1 billion times in its lifetime, why there are no trees as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and why more species live at the Earth’s equator than at its poles. By looking at how living things use energy, we can answer these and myriad other intriguing questions. In the Beat of a Heart combines biography, history, science and nature writing to capture the exciting advances— and the people who are making them—that are triggering a revolution as potentially important to biology as Newton’s insights were to physics.

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

John Whitfield

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 278 pages
  • Publisher: Joseph Henry Press (September 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0309096812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0309096812
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,379,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does Chemical Energy Explain the Unity of Nature? March 14, 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The central question of this fascinating book is the precise role of energy in the living world.

Biology is in an interesting state of flux, with some visionary scientists believing that all biological processes are explainable by the laws of physics and mathematics. Meanwhile another group believes that quantum mechanics provides the best explanation for life process and a minority who think that we need to look elsewhere for an explanation of biological organization and function. In the middle is a very large group of teachers are researchers who are unfamiliar with the debates that are raging at scientific conferences and in the scholarly journals.

This is far from being an idle discussion: it has enormous implications for our understanding not only of biology, but also of health and disease. Wherever your sympathies lie in this ongoing debate, it is useful and important to know the current state of play in each of these different camps.

This book is an extremely well written and enthralling account of scientific discovery, that focuses on the efforts of a determined band of investigators who believe that they can - simply by using the currently known laws of physics and mathematics - build a unified theory of how living organisms function.

The idea that energy might be a unifying concept is not new. One of the first to discuss it was D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson who published a classic book on the topic - On Growth and Form - in 1917. In that book Thompson explored the effects of body size on life. Since larger animals need to expend more energy to do their day-to-day jobs, he began the study of metabolic rate and the way in which it sets the tempo for life processes. If metabolism slows, then so do all the processes in cells and organs.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Origin of Wealth and health April 9, 2007
Format:Hardcover
This book is wonderful new application of thermodynamics to biology. And biology finaly start to yield to Scientific enquiry, by which author implies 'written in mathematics'. We now know how all the living things are behaving. This book thus might make a trilogy of life science books; "Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics" on the behaviour of other people, by Eric D. Beinhocker and "I am a strange loop" by Doug Hofstadter, on the behaviour of myself(to be released soon).
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5.0 out of 5 stars Takes on from where "On Growth and Form" left off December 15, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is all about the contributions of physics to biological systems. It take on from where
D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form" left off. It looks for the laws that govern biology - focusing on the laws not discovered by Darwin. It explores the causes of metabolic scaling laws, considers the relationship between the sizes of ecosystems and their diversity - and many similar topics. The book goes into the history of the topic in some detail.

The author subsequently went on to develop an interest in maximum entropy thermodynamics - and I was curious to see if there was any content relating to that in this book. There isn't really, and it's a pretty big omission - this is a big and important area where physics has something important and useful to say about biological systems.

The author is a great science writer. I'm sure he could make practically anything sound interesting. However, his topic here is fairly esoteric and technical - not all readers will be interested in the content. If you want to understand why metabolic rate scales with size to the power of 3/4 - and not the 2/3 you might naively expect - this book will tell you all about that in great detail. However, if this question merely evokes a "meh" from you, then you might be one of the yawning readers.

If you're interested in how physics applies to biology, you should read this - and something that covers maximum entropy thermodynamics.
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The book started with D'Arcy Thompson's original and creative view of pattens in life and his application of mathematics and physics in biology and then tried to integrate many historical and current researches to answer one of the ultimate questions of life that what is the relationship between metabolic rates and body size. I truly enjoy this book not only because the theme itself is interesting but also because the author did a really great job to explain the question, the concepts and the implications of this rather unusual aspects of physical biology with unbiased and objective ways.
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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I found In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature (by John Whitfield) an intriguing book, which offered some great insights on how complex system thinking might be able to help in discovering some of the secrets of life through biological systems prcess. The book spends a fair amount of time describing the relationships between body metabolism, mass, and lifespan. It covers he exciting work by Geoffrey West from the Santa Fe Institute and his colleagues on the use of complex systems methodology and the minimization of energy principle to derive some broadly general mathematical relationships between metabolism, mass, temperature, and lifespan for a broad range of animal species.
I recommend the book for the curious reader, who is interested in learning a little more about some of the mysteries of biology and the systems perspective that some scientist have taken to help uncover them.
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