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Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival [Paperback]

Frances Ashcroft
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 18, 2002 0520234200 979-0520234207 First ediito
The challenge of scaling the highest mountain, exploring the deepest ocean, crossing the hottest desert, or swimming in near-freezing water is irresistible to many people. Life at the Extremes is an engrossing exploration of what happens to our bodies in these seemingly uninhabitable environments. Frances Ashcroft weaves stories of extraordinary feats of endurance with historical material and the latest scientific findings as she investigates the limits of human survival and the remarkable adaptations that enable us to withstand extreme conditions.

What causes mountain sickness? How is it possible to reach the top of Everest without supplementary oxygen, when passengers in an airplane that depressurized at the same altitude would lose consciousness in seconds? Why do divers get the bends but sperm whales do not? How long you can survive immersion in freezing water? Why don't penguins get frostbite? Will men always be faster runners than women? How far into deep space can a body travel?

As she considers these questions, Ashcroft introduces a cast of extraordinary scientific personalities—inventors and explorers who have charted the limits of human survival. She describes many intriguing experiments and shows how scientific knowledge has enabled us to venture toward and beyond ever greater limits. Life at the Extremes also considers what happens when athletes push their bodies to the edge, and tells of the remarkable adaptations that enable some organisms to live in boiling water, in highly acidic lakes, or deep in the middle of rocks.

Anyone who flies in an airplane, sails the high seas, goes skiing or walking in the mountains, or simply weathers subzero winters or sweltering summers will be captivated by this book. Full of scientific information, beautifully written, and packed with many fascinating digressions, Life at the Extremes lures us to the very edge of human survival.

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Editorial Reviews Review

"It is an extraordinary coincidence," writes English physiologist Frances Ashcroft, "that the highest peak on Earth is also about the highest point at which humans can survive unaided." A coincidence, to be sure, and, like many other milestones of the limits of human endurance, one known to us through the joint efforts of scientists, mountain climbers, explorers, and athletes.

Ashcroft's book is a thoroughly engaging survey of those limits and their origins in the nature of things, of what happens to human beings in the most difficult environmental conditions. She writes, for instance, of why it is that astronauts have trouble standing after returning to Earth (because, in part, their leg muscles quickly atrophy outside of terrestrial gravity); of how the famed Japanese pearl divers condition themselves to attain such extraordinary underwater depths; of how and why the consumption of carbohydrates and caffeine can improve athletic performance; of why British children so easily suffer heat exhaustion on trips to such semitropical venues as, say, Disneyworld, whereas young Saudis can tolerate much higher temperatures (but would likely not thrive in an English winter).

Backed by extensive field research--the author has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, sweated it out in Japanese hot tubs, and run after her share of buses--as well as by a wealth of laboratory studies, Ashcroft's book is of great appeal to anyone who wishes to test the world's limits--or their own. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Ashcroft, a professor of physiology at Oxford, offers a fascinating compendium of facts about what it takes to endure intense heat and cold, the pressure of the deep sea, the lack of pressure and oxygen at high altitudes and the void of space, as well as what is necessary to perform such demanding sports as sprinting. She takes readers step by step through the intricacies of each. For example, in her chapter on mountain climbing, readers receive a brief history of "mountain sickness" and accounts of its effects; a tutorial on atmospheric pressure, how we become acclimated to the lack thereof and the dangers of airplane depressurization; there is also a sidebar on why birds can fly over Everest without suffering. Similarly, her chapter on deep-sea diving covers the perils of pressure, why people get the bends and whales don't, how Japanese fisherwomen can swim incredibly deep and how technology has helped us reach so far down. Her chapters on surviving heat and cold are particularly interesting, illustrating how the human body regulates its temperature and offering many accounts of why, for instance, people survived being lost in the desert and trapped in freezing water. Throughout, Ashcroft also explains how animals have adapted to horrific conditions far better than humans have, despite the efforts of foolhardy scientists to see how far their own bodies can be pushed. This is a worthwhile read both for those who participate in extreme sports and those who prefer to enjoy them from the comfort of an armchair. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 347 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First ediito edition (March 18, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520234200
  • ISBN-13: 979-0520234207
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.8 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #916,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent book for the curious-minded! January 12, 2001
If you have ever wondered EXACTLY why and how humans get altitude sickness, what happens to the body when exposed to extreme heat or cold, why scuba divers sometime get the "bends," or what would happen to an astronaut if the Space Station developed a leak, this book is for you. Frances M. Ashcroft explains in complete detail - the detail that is so often lacking in the popular, dumbed-down modern media - why the body at high altitudes can't get the oxygen it needs, what happens to skin cells when you burn yourself or get frostbite, how nitrogen dissolves in your blood when diving deep in water, or how your blood would boil if exposed to the emptiness of space.
And she doesn't stop with humans. She examines the extremes of the animal world for creatures able to withstand and thrive in boiling cauldrons, the extreme depths of the oceans, or the extreme cold of Antarctica.
She presents not just a world of creatures living in incredible environments, but precise descriptions of how this is all accomplished. This makes for Really Amazing reading!
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding and accessible science book July 23, 2003
By A Customer
I have always been fascinated with this topic, and this book opened my eyes to all kinds of interesting aspects of adaptation of animals (especially humans) to extreme conditions. Particularly interesting to me were the chapters on altitude and depth. Examples and sidebars were well chosen and well explained. I have used information from the book in lectures to students of physiology. Highly recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Deceptive description, but still a good read May 30, 2003
This book appealed to my inner nerd, and helped me understand from a physiological standpoint what is happening during when the body is put to the extreme test. It doesn't talk about when people are placed in extreme situations, which was the part I found pretty deceptive. But Dr. Ashcroft is an anatomy professor - that should have been my big clue. Still, a good read if you've got an interest in anatomy and physiology.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life's amazing adaptability October 16, 2000
This much-heralded book is a treasure chest of facts and anecdotes on (mostly human or other mammalian) life under extreme conditions. It's a good mix of physics, physiology, and the adventurous tales of people "who have been there". The extremes treated in this book range from the deepest depth of the ocean to the highest elevations that can be reached on foot or by balloon, from the causes and dangers of overheating to what tissues frostbites destroy. It also includes a chapter on astronauts' problems in space, as well as one on how microbes survive in atmospheres of otherwise lethal toxic gases, in hot springs, acid and caustic lakes or springs, and in deep rocks. This is a book for the general reader and the physics and physiology are accordingly described in an easily understandable manner. It is also a good starting point for someone intending to delve deeper into the matter (a 'further reading' list is appended). The text is agreeable to read (except for the irritating use of singular subject and plural verb form) and the printing errors are easy to spot. A shame is that the illustrations were not printed on glossy paper; they loose much of their charm on the rough surface of the pages.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and interesting; slight flaws December 31, 2000
This book contains a variety of interesting bits of trivia and it is written with a voice that keeps the reader interested. Scientific facts and principles are presented in a manner accessible to a general audience, but they are not so overly simplified that a scientist becomes bored.
The only serious shortcoming is that sometimes the biological background of the author demonstrates fundamental deficiencies in understanding physics. While these errors did not really subtract from the main points being made, physicists and engineers may occasionally become irritated.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What you never thought to know. October 10, 2009
By reddelk
This is an incredible collection of knowledge. Share this with everyone! The amount of information you never thought to think about is amazing! Who knew that the amount of time spent in microgravity is proportional to the amount of muscle and bone loss in an individual. Science Fiction be damned!! I think I will "pass" on the kidney and bone integrity deficiencies. What an eye opener!
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