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Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (Popular Science)

70 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0198607830
ISBN-10: 0198607830
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Editorial Reviews

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Nick Lane, the author of Oxygen, studied biochemistry at the University of London and did his doctoral research on oxygen free radicals at the Royal Free Hospital in London, but then left science to become the director of a multimedia company involved to a certain extent in medical education. His background suffuses this book, both for better and for worse. Apart from the first chapter, which is cast in a style approaching the juvenile, the book is very well written and easy to read. Lane makes his points clearly, and his lines of reasoning are well developed. The first half of the book is a very interesting and well-thought-out analysis of evolution, starting from the Archean eon and carrying on through the appearance of multicellular eukaryotes, such as humans. There is some awkward writing: "oxygen-hating" this and that, "first ever ice age," and a strained analogy about opinionated newspaper proprietors. Early in the book there are three or four statements that look like errors, but they are corrected later in the book. Of considerable interest, however, are Lane's remarks about chlorophyll arising from purple bacteria. Even more interesting is his comment to the effect that the oxygen-evolving complex in plants arose from an adaptation of catalase. He astutely points out that Fridovich's discovery of superoxide dismutase was "the most important discovery in modern biology never to win the Nobel Prize," a sentiment with which I heartily concur. The second half of the book begins with an excellent chapter on vitamin C, in which the author appropriately describes the outstanding work of Mark Levine and quotes Linus Pauling: "I would trust the biochemistry of a goat over the advice of a doctor." But subsequently, there is a mistake: Sue-Goo Rhee is referred to as a woman, when in fact he is a man. The rest of the second half, though informative in many places, is chiefly a buildup to the author's own theory -- namely, that aging itself is due exclusively to the damage caused by the leakage of oxygen radicals from aging mitochondria. In the course of the book, Lane takes a couple of shots at scientists for working on little pictures instead of the big picture. He takes little cognizance of the fact that big pictures, including the cause of aging, are made by the assembly of little pictures and that his own theory, probably only in part correct, was derived from many little pictures. He cites a few articles that support his idea but none that oppose it. Despite the inclusion of a small number of references, the book is not a perfect work of scholarship. But it is not meant to be one. It is a thought-provoking popularization of evolution and oxygen biochemistry, and I'm glad I read it. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, I can recommend the book strongly because of its informational content and its breezy and accessible style. It has to be read, though, with eyes open. Bernard M. Babior, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"A thought-provoking popularization of evolution and oxygen biochemistry."--New England Journal of Medicine

"Nothing less than a total rethink of how life evolved between about 3.5 billion and 543 million years ago, and how that relates to the diseases we suffer from today.... This is scientific writing at its best."--Financial Times

"A worthy effort with a clearly argued message, full of informative and entertaining details."--American Scientist

"Provocative and complexly argued."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"One of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read."--John Emsley

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Product Details

  • Series: Popular Science
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 26, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198607830
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198607830
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 1.1 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nick Lane is a biochemist and writer. He is a Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. "Like his forebears in that same department -- Steve Jones, JBS Haldane -- he's that rare species, a scientist who can illuminate the bewildering complexities of biology with clear, luminous words" (The Observer). His research focuses on the role of bioenergetics in the origin of life and the evolution of cells. Nick was awarded the first UCL Provost's Venture Research Prize in 2009 and the 2015 Biochemical Society Award. He has published four critically acclaimed books, which have been translated into 20 languages. Life Ascending won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His books have been shortlisted for two other literary prizes and named a book of the year by the Economist, Independent, Times, Sunday Times and New Scientist. He was described by Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek as "a writer who is not afraid to think big - and think hard." For more information, visit

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

69 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on January 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Nick Lane's book, Oxygen The Molecule that made the World, is a surprising volume. It mixes organic and inorganic chemistry with evolutionary studies, paleontology, research medicine, and even a little engineering to explain how the world got to be as it is. The first half of the book is dedicated to what our early atmosphere was like and how it changed as a result of biological activity. It also discusses how the evolving atmosphere, particularly the presence of oxygen, affected the complexity of early life and the sudden flourish of biological diversity after the Precambrian. The last half of the volume deals with the recent research on free radicals and their effect on health and on the phenomena of aging and of immortality.
Doctor Lane's own background is in biochemistry, and his research focus has been on oxygen free radicals and metabolic function in organ transplants. Not surprisingly he went into some detail about the free radical cascade that affects cellular metabolism and DNA integrity. I found this somewhat difficult to understand as I have only a very rudimentary grounding in organic chemistry. Still I have to admit that I know somewhat more about the process than I did before reading this book.
Probably because I know significantly more about geology and paleontology, I enjoyed more fully the author's synthesis and analysis of what we know of the geological and biological development of our atmosphere and our planet.
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45 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on December 4, 2004
Format: Paperback
In school, we learned of the ubiquity of hydrogen in the universe. It made up the stars, drifted between the galaxies, and, combined with nitrogen, composed the atmosphere of our solar system's giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn. We learned, too, how it combined with oxygen to make our planet's blessing - water. Oxygen was deemed the life-giver, earning our respect even when we burned things with it in the lab. That "burning" is a key element in Lane's treatise. We're all aware that without oxygen, we cannot live. On the other hand, too much of this vital element attacks our cells and contributes to the ageing process. Consequently, we've turned to "anti-oxidants" in hope of diminishing the negative aspects. Lane issues a strong cautionary note about this practice, using a strong evolutionary base to build his case.

Science has long known that the early Earth had little free oxygen in the atmosphere. The famous Urey-Miller experiments used a "reducing" atmospheric environment to build their compounds. Traditional biology argues that oxygen was emitted by photosynthetic bacteria as a waste product. Existing life thus had to adapt to this poisonous atmosphere. Lane challenges this view, describing mechanisms that made early organisms already oxygen tolerant. He contends that the Last Universal Common Ancestor, a minute organism residing in shallow seas, learned to break water into its component gases, using freed energy. In striking a balance between using oxygen as an energy source and preventing that energy from consuming the cell, life developed finely honed processes. Oxygen is more than just used by life, it is constrained and controlled carefully in organic mechanisms.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on September 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
For a relatively short book, Lane's story about oxygen covers an amazing scope that cuts across huge swaths of science including geology, paleontology, anthropology, biology, geo-physics, evolution, and medicine. Although Oxygen is fascinating for the story it tells of earth's evolution, it's also contemporary in the way it deals with one of the oldest questions faced by humankind - how and why we age and die.

Most people know that the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from plants, and that we need oxygen to live. Recent science news has also spread the word that oxygen has a darker side because it causes cell damage and oxidative stress. Purveyors of health foods explain the value of things like green tea in terms of their anti-oxidants and their supposed ability to neutralize the harsh effects of oxygen on human bodies. But there's a mystery here; if oxygen is so toxic, why did so many life forms evolve to depend on it? Though an apparent mystery, this subject is the topic of intense research which is beginning to explain this particular tale of evolution.

This is one of the better books I've read in the last year. For the most part it is relatively easy to read, though there are times when the book is hard to follow. For me, some passages required reading over and over again before I could confidently say that I understood what the author was saying. In a few cases, though, I was never clear and finally had to simply guess.

Whenever I checked the books accuracy I found it to be generally correct, though there are a few places that stumped me. For example, on page 65 Lane says:

When ionized, a single atom of organic carbon gives up as many as four electrons to form carbon dioxide.
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