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Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own First Edition Edition

32 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393071580
ISBN-10: 0393071588
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In 1977, when marine geologists discovered an abundance of never-before-seen life-forms thriving near superhot hydrothermal vents on the Pacific Ocean floor, the limits of life suddenly expanded beyond what biologists previously thought possible. Since then, scientists have discovered algae living in Antarctic brine and fungi feasting on inorganic chemicals in rock. Dubbed extremophiles for their proficiency in adapting to extreme conditions, these organisms all nonetheless incorporate DNA and have a common terrestrial ancestor. But what if there are forms of life on other planets composed of utterly different molecules? What would such creatures, large or small, look like? In 2002 a National Research Council committee pondered these exact questions, and their answers inspired this mind-bending exploration of weird life, by veteran technical writer Toomey. After cataloging the varieties of improbable life here on earth, Toomey takes a tour of the committee’s report and speculative fiction, citing such examples as silicon-based ETs to sentient oceans. Biologists and sf fans alike will find much here to challenge their preconceived notions of life in the universe. --Carl Hays


[P]hysicists and astronomers have speculated that alien life might arise near black holes and neutron stars, or even as intelligent clouds of interstellar dust. In "Weird Life," David Toomey conveys these far-out theories with precision and humor -- including the theory that a "shadow biosphere" of weird organisms might thrive right here on Earth. 
-- The New York Times

We visit ... the possibility of microbial life in Venusian clouds; doppelgangers in the multiverse; and much, much more. Weird indeed, and not a little wonderful. 
-- Nature

The author begins by describing "extremophiles," which thrive in wildly harsh conditions: chemical hot springs, inside sea ice, miles beneath the earth or at the ocean's bottom. Having dealt with creatures that, however weird, exist, he proceeds to even stranger life that may exist on Earth, the planets, elsewhere throughout the universe, and in the minds of writers and philosophers ... An ingenious overview of anything that might be alive. The author remains true to science while coming to delightfully bizarre conclusions. 
-- Kirkus Reviews, STARRED

As English professor Toomey tracks the work of scientists who hunt for such extreme examples, he explores the very definition of life. He also envisions the truly weird life-forms that might exist elsewhere in the universe--such as bacteria that ride on icy comets or even "living" networks of charged dust grains that circle black holes and communicate with one another electromagnetically. 
-- Scientific American, recommended

Toomey's latest covers the strange, stranger, and strangest of life forms "at the frontiers of biology," such as organisms that can survive extreme temperatures, on stars, or inside our own bodies. Drawing from such noted scientists and popular writers such as Carl Sagan and Dr. Seuss, Toomey manages to make this panoply of life forms at once strange and familiar, and in doing so will entrance his readers. 
-- Library Journal, STARRED

David Toomey's book is a fluent, bold and informative tour d'horizon of the latest thinking on these and other questions. It explores the frontiers of possibility, where 'weird' means anything that has an origin independent of the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of all the earthlings we think we know. No such form has been discovered yet, but the literature of scientifically informed speculation is something rich and strange in its own right, and Toomey does it full justice. 
-- The Literary Review

An ingenious overview of anything that might be alive. The author remains true to science while coming to delightfully bizarre conclusions. (Kirkus Reviews)

Weird life, Toomey teaches us in his mind-bending book, is not just weirder than anything we can imagine, it is the weirdest thing we have ever imagined. (Justin Nobel, author of Orion)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (February 26, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393071588
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393071580
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #844,851 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Susan Tunis on March 4, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Look, I'm as geeky as the next girl. How can you hear the subject matter of this book and not be fascinated? David Toomey opens Weird Life exactly where I would expect--with extremophiles. Extremophiles are some of the most unusual and extraordinary creatures in all of biology. Which makes sense, because life = biology. Right?

That's what I thought, but clearly that's due to a massive failure of imagination on my part. One the most impressive things about Toomey's book are the sheer breadth, depth, and scope of what is covered. Toomey starts with biology--microbiology, exobiology, marine biology, synthetic biology, molecular biology, astrobiology, evolutionary biology. That, friends, is the mere tip of the iceberg. Toomey touches on disciplines and theories including: organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, interstellar chemistry, molecular chemistry, biochemistry, nuclear chemistry, geology, genetics, robotics, computer science, mathematics, theoretical physics, particle physics, quantum physics, astrophysics, string theory, nanotechnology, multiverses, astrology, botany, taxonomy, engineering, ecology, epistemology, psychology, and philosophy. If that's not enough, there's even a chapter on weird life in science fiction! This book is thorough, that's all I'm saying. There's a reason for this:

"The attentive reader may have noticed that ideas for the weirdest sorts of weird life did not originate with biologists or even, for that matter, with astrobiologists. They came from scholars and practitioners in other fields. The hypotheses of life in other universes were formulated by theoretical physicists (Harnik, Kribs, and Perez; and Jaffe, Jenkins, and Kimchi).
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By O. R. Pagan on March 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
**Full disclosure: A copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher for evaluation as a possible book for one of the courses I teach with a friend and colleague at my work. I have no conflict of interest.**

**Also, this review was first published in my blog:

Weird Life is an absolutely delightful book! I say this not only because the book is about one of my favorite science topics or just because I happen to co-teach a related course. The theme helps of course, but the book is very enjoyable because it is very well-written too! The author's writing style is witty and funny. Moreover, it reads like a story; one of the reasons why you keep reading is because you want to know what happens next. Also, it is very much evident that the author did his homework.

He presents an engaging story combining the question "what is life?" with an exploration of what we know about it and a series of very logical and interesting speculations of what we do not know about it. He even extended this exploration to really weird places like black holes and neutron stars. Let me tell you, it is VERY difficult to integrate chemistry / biochemistry / physiology / ecology / geology / astronomy and physics-cosmology among other topics in a course, let alone in a single popular science book, yet Dr. Toomey succeeded. He aptly summarizes cutting edge research in an engaging way. I especially liked his chapter about weird life and science fiction. As icing on the cake, he mentioned the research of a former colleague of mine on the discovery of ancient bacteria in really old salt crystals.

Also, I confess that any book that mentions Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan has a place in my heart.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
It is surprising how living things cram themselves into every possible corner of our world; a natural space that is completely sterile is, well, unnatural. Some of those living things are truly weird. Just think of how alien to us are spiders, for instance, or the fungi that help our soils keep going. It hasn't been long that humans have known about microorganisms, and just a few decades ago we never would have thought that hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor were teeming with life, as were rocks deep beneath our soil or inside the Antarctic ice cap. So, yes, such life is weird, but it all comes from some common ancestor billions of years ago, and it all uses the same key molecule of DNA and the same amino acids which the DNA codes into proteins. These cousins of ours are covered briefly in _Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own_ (W. W. Norton) by David Toomey. But as weird as "life as we know it" might be, it isn't as weird as life that uses different amino acids, or uses ammonia for its solvent rather than water, or uses silicon rather than carbon for "organic" molecules, or even inhabits alternative universes with vastly different physics. Toomey is an English teacher, but he has written before on scientific subjects, and his explanations here are playful and amusing. There is plenty of science in the book, but the weird life forms are theoretical, which is part of the fun. Sure, there is no evidence right now that such life exists, but it is a big universe out there.

A huge question right off the bat is, "What is life?" and Toomey shows how it is almost impossible to give a good answer. Much of the theoretical life here would inarguably be living, like the cells on Titan that use liquid methane instead of water as their living medium.
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