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In the Beat of a Heart: Life, Energy, and the Unity of Nature
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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.Read more ›
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.
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.