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The FIFTH MIRACLE: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0684863092
ISBN-10: 068486309X
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

How did life begin? Did it start here, by blind chance or by necessity, or was Earth seeded by extraterrestrial visitors? (And, if so, how did they arise?) Physicist and science writer Paul Davies tackles these heavy questions and more in The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life, a wide-ranging survey of the field of biogenesis. From the "Martian meteorite" ALH84001 to the hardy microorganisms living on--and under!--our sea beds, Davies looks for evidence pointing toward our first ancestor. His willingness to consider any possibility makes for a fun, fascinating journey through our solar system and beyond.

The Fifth Miracle provides convincing arguments that life flourishes, and may indeed have begun, deep within the earth's crust, and not in Darwin's "warm little pond." And if in our planet's crust, why not in others'? Indeed, he shows that it is not just possible but likely that living organisms have passed between Earth and Mars embedded within meteorites. Davies's command of the data and his facility with explaining it to nonprofessionals give the lie to his self-description as "a simple-minded physicist" intruding in another's domain. The best scientists hate to see questions finally answered and love to see new ones raised; by that standard (and by any other), The Fifth Miracle is a first-rate book of scientific speculation. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

With ease and charm, and without dumbing down the pertinent technical and philosophical issues, popular-science writer Davies (Are We Alone?: The Philosophical Basis of the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, etc.) combines research results from disparate fields to explore possible approaches to the question of biogenesis. Although he was trained as a physicist, Davies skillfully draws together insights from hot areas in microbiologyAsuch as the study of extremophiles (bacteria that thrive in dangerous levels of acidity, cold, heat, radioactivity), the discovery of a third domain of life and the controversy over whether traces of carbon on Martian meteorites are actually fossilized bacteriaAin his pursuit of a fundamental question: What is the origin of biological (and thus genetic) information? He is skeptical that purely biochemical forces could spark the leap from nonlife to life. At stake is another question: Is the universe bio-friendly? Davies believes that the answers to these questions involve identifying a new "law" of nature, which may come from advances in information and complexity theory. He contends it is possible that quantum mechanics also may be found to play a role in the relationship between life and the universe at large. This book is sure to engage and provoke readers curious about the raging controversies over the origin of life, on Earth or elsewhere. Seven line drawings.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (March 16, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 068486309X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684863092
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #481,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
You can't fault Paul Davies for a lack of gumption. Anyone who'd subtitle his latest book, "the search for the origin and meaning of life" isn't in need of any assertiveness training courses. When I first picked up the book, I thought, "Yeesh, a physicist, writing about the origins of life. Wouldn't that be more the work of a molecular biologist?" But as I read on, I was gradually taken in by Davies spell.
And that's saying something. If, five years ago, you'd told me I'd take the following ideas seriously, I'd have laughed nervously and edged away in a non-threatening manner. Here are Davies' ideas in a nutshell (no pun intended):
1) Life may have existed on Mars. 2) Life may still exist on Mars. 3) Life on earth may have arisen in space and migrated here (panspermia) 4) The "natural" home for life on earth may be in the hot depths of the crust, kilometres beneath the surface.
As I say, five years ago, those ideas would have been heresy. But it's been an interesting five years. The (in)famous martian meteorite, the discovery of tiny, primitive forms of life deep within the earth, life thriving around hydrothermal vents, the discovery of intricate chemical reactions happening in space ... well, it's been fun. And Davies takes full advantage of living in such "interesting times".
Davies makes a thoughtful (if not always persuasive) case for his views on the origins of life. And I found it a really enjoyable read. If you're at all interested in where life came from, or whether there might be life "out there" this is a great book to begin with. Davies is an excellent writer with some fascinating ideas and a great style:
"In a subject supercharged with such significance, lack of agreement is unsurprising.
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Format: Paperback
The Fifth Miracle by Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist who works primarily on the topic of quantum gravity, is a very readable book on the origin of life. Although there is little that is new in the text, the author has put the information into perspective for the reader, discussing a number of aspects and points of view. Probably one of the most salient points he makes is that if , as some would have us believe, life is ubiquitous to the universe to the extent that water equals life, then the basic scientific world view may have to be overhauled. He writes:
In claiming that water means life, NASA scientists are not merely being upbeat about their project. They are making--tacitly--a huge [italics] and profound assumption about the nature of nature. They are saying, in effect, that the laws of the universe are cunningly contrived to coax life into being against the raw odds; that the mathematical principles of physics, in their elegant simplicity, somehow know in advance about life and its vast complexity. If life follows from soup with causal dependability, the laws of nature encode a hidden subtext, a cosmic imperative, which tells them: 'Make life!' And, through life, its by-products: mind, knowledge, understanding. It means the laws of the universe have engineered their own comprehension. This is a breathtaking vision of nature, magnificent and uplifting in its majestic sweep. I hope it is correct. It would be wonderful if it were correct. But if it is, it represents a shift in the scientific world-view as profound as that initiated by Copernicus and Darwin put together. It should not be glossed over with glib statements that water plus organics equals life, obviously, for it is far from obvious (p. 246).
This book and Rare Earth by Peter Douglas Ward and Donald Brownlee pretty much cover the life in the universe topic for anyone interested in the topic, and both are engagingly written and understandable.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a little dated [published in 1999 and now 2009] but still worth reading as a recap on abiogenesis as of the early 90's.
I think it overemphasizes the "life from space/Mars" faction a little, but I appreciate the plausibility that Davies brings forth re Panspermia as opposed to my own prejudice that these ideas involve too many miracles in a row.
Written as it was when, simultaneously, Information Science/Biology were rapidly being assimilated by all the various disciplines upon whose domains the abiogenesis question[s] border; and the overconfidence of the Genome reading successes of that time, this book provides a somewhat optimistic outlook on the imagined success of science to frame the question of the origin of life as we know it.
Very light on the technical details of the various theories of evolution, especially their roles in speciation and unique root of the origin of life. I expect that even the educated layman will have to consult Steve Gould and his cohorts for comprehensive threads of the evolution idea at these levels. [and/or more recent works by Molecular Biologists]
I am in search myself of a book at the educated layman level that extends the central themes initiated by Davies. The reader of Davies' book will probably be adequately equipped to put much of it in the category to which it belongs, ie long on speculation and short on any possibility of empirical verification. I was disappointed with the book's development of these theories from the point of view of Information Theory and Entropy. Much more was known even at the time of the writing about critical systems. Perhaps Davies, a physicist after all, eschewed a more mathematical treatment that such discussion would entail. He does know how to sell books. The writing is excellent and the "objectivity"is certainly admirable.
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