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Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World Paperback – January 13, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0471296515 ISBN-10: 0471296511 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 285 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (January 13, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471296511
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471296515
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #990,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

While long an indispensable tool for the physical sciences, mathematics has only relatively recently been used to describe the symmetry of the living world. Stewart sees mathematical laws at work even at the level of DNA replication.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Scientific American

Life's first secret, Stewart says, is the molecular structure of DNA. The other secret, he believes, is mathematical control of a growing organism. (Mathematician Stewart's activities include conducting this magazine's Mathematical Recreations department.) Arguing that "life is a partnership between genes and mathematics," he embarks on an absorbing study of what life is, how it originated and how the search for mathematical laws that underlie the behavior of living organisms will illuminate those deep questions. Along the way, he examines mathematical patterns in flowers, bird feathers, animal locomotion and many other features of life. But he hopes for much more profound findings in biomathematics. "A full understanding of life depends on mathematics," he writes. "At every level of scale, from molecules to ecosystems, we find mathematical patterns in innumerable aspects of life. It is time we put the mathematics and the biology together."

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on March 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
Stewart begins his book by telling the reader:
"I am going to try to convince you that as wonderful as genes are, they are not the whole answer to the question of life. More radically, I am also going to try to convince you that a full understanding of life depends upon mathematics."
Basically, Stewart believes that scientists have overemphasized genetics and ignored (or at least under emphasized) the role of what I'll call large-scale or macro rules of physics and chemistry and the comparatively simple mathematics that describe them. For example, a molecular biologist might see a striped shell and wonder which genes caused them. Stewart would be more inclined to ask if there isn't some sort of chemical diffusion equation that leads to the stripes without them being specifically encoded in the genes. The point is that DNA may not need to encode much detail in many cases because the detail arises spontaneously out of macroscopic laws.
Stewart has studied at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. Other prominent scientists associated with the Institute are Murray Gell-Mann and Stuart Kauffman. Kauffman, in particular, has conducted studies regarding emergent properties of self-catalytic systems and you can see the influence of his thinking in much of Ian Stewart's book (see Stuart Kauffman's book "At home in the universe, the search for laws of self organization and complexity").
The book begins with discussions relating to the nature of life and musings about DNA and replication. It's interesting to see the line between life and non-life blur under Stewart's prose.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kurt W. Swenson on April 11, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about biomathemetics for those of us who didn't know we were interested in biomathematics. Stewart teases us into the subject by exploring different contexts for the question of "What is Life?". This leads to explorations into how life is shaped by the properties of physical laws. The book focuses on abstractions. Stewart talks about ideas, but chooses not to go into much detail. Many of the illustrations have no explanations, and some have errors. The ideas are all clearly related, but they are never really tied together in the book. I think this was intentional. I think Stewart is hoping that the theme of the book will emerge from the ideas. If he had tried to state the theme as a conclusion that tied the ideas all together, the theme would belong to the author. He wants the theme to belong to the reader, and so he let's us come to our own conclusions. This leaves you with an unfinished feeling, but there are lots of good references (I especially like his annotated further reading section). I feel wiser for having read this book. The most confusing part of the book comes from using the name "math" to describe the language of numbers and as a notation for describing symmetries in the physical universe.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 29, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I think 4 or 5 stars is really over-rating this book...
In short, if you "are" a mathematician to any degree, and are more than just a layperson looking for some neat facts to through out during cocktail conversation, then skip this. There are some answers, yes; but you won't find any of the depth of understanding that, in my opinion, goes with enjoying mathematics.
There were a number of times I was reading a chapter, lost track of what the point was, and looked at the top of the page for the chapter name for help. A number of times I found myself unable to get the chapters' contents to jive with their titles and intros. Overall, it felt like a mish-mosh of topics, questions, answers,...
The part about "Turing's equations" was especially frustrating. Over and over they were described in the context of looking for understanding behind animals' stripes, spots, etc. First the equations seemed to provide some answers; later they were not proven to have a physical basis; later still biologists are said to have re-embraced them. But through all this, not ONE iota of description (never mind -- gasp -- an equation) of what Turing's equations are !
The one part of the book I *did* enjoy was the beginning third or so which, for me, added continuity to my previous disjointed understanding of how life could evolve from inorganic materials. And yes, he makes his point that "Genes are great, but there's math in there too!". But the point does *not* require that much argument; after a while, you're saying, "OK, OK, you've made your point. Can you focus on depth and continuity a bit more please."
At 2/3-rds through the book, I skimmed the rest looking for something to make me want to continue reading it. I stopped reading it at that point.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Albert Swanson on January 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
Is life regulated and given structure by genetics alone? Or do physical and chemical constraints have a significant bearing on an organism's morphology? Inspired by D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's classic, On Growth and Form, mathematician Ian Stewart argues convincingly that, the current popular view of the primacy of the genome notwithstanding, the major phenotypical influences, including those of the genes themselves, are highly constrained by physics and chemistry, both as endogenous and exogenous processes. What's more, such processes are manifestations of underlying mathematical "rules". (Stewart is, of course, neither the first nor the last to champion the "life is math" viewpoint. Other strange bedfellows in this general tradition range from William Paley, the eighteenth century theologian who conceived a mechanical universe so finely crafted and tuned that there must be a (divine) "watchmaker", to Stephen Wolfram, whose recent vanity tome, A New Kind of Science, posits, at its core, cellular automata as life's computing mechanism.)
Life's Other Secret is a beautifully written book that teaches about symmetry and symmetry breaking and oscillators and other important facets of evolution's geometry. It might seem odd that a mathematician takes on a subject more apparently appropriate to biology or zoology. And, indeed, life does often imitate art: In Collapse of Chaos, Stewart and Jack Cohen provide an example destructive professional encroachment: Two ice cream venders at the beach increasingly move in on each other's territory, so that, in the end, neither the bank accounts of the venders nor the gustatory desires of their customers are best served.
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