- Paperback: 285 pages
- Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (January 27, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0471296511
- ISBN-13: 978-0471296515
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,507,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World 1st Edition
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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 the Hardcover edition.
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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
"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. Chapter three discusses the emergence of DNA, possible roles played by clay platelets, and the idea that DNA might be just a frozen accident - the molecule was picked because it evolved first and created an environment in which no others could get a start once DNA was established.
Chapter four is called the oxygen menace. There is an interesting discussion of how prokaryotes might have evolved, created oxygen as a poisonous byproduct, oxygenated the atmosphere, and then evolved into eukaryotes to capitalize on a more efficient method of generating energy by burning fuel using oxygen in the new atmosphere. This chapter has some interesting stuff on how cells move using the cytoskeleton and microtubules. I also enjoyed the description of slime-mold colonies and how they illustrate the possible manner in which larger organisms evolved from cooperative colonies of less complex life forms.
Chapter five is titled artificial life, but much of it deals strictly with the process of evolution among very un-artifical forms. There is a discussion about the famous finches on the Galapagos Islands and how they stimulated Darwin to understand how species evolve. There is also some interesting material on numerical taxonomy, evolutionary taxonomy, and cladism. Finally, the end of the chapter distills the discussion into general principles of evolution and how simple computer programs (artificial life) can illustrate many of the patterns we see in the real world among living species.
The first five chapters are really just background information about the first life on our planet, the evolution of DNA, and general principles of evolution. Stewart's real thesis (and the real fun) begins in chapter 6 with flowers for Fibonacci. Ever wonder why the seeds in a sunflower spiral the way they do? Ever wonder why there are the numbers of petals you find in flowers? Chapter 6 has the surprisingly simple answer, and it doesn't require lots of information encoding in DNA sequences, either.
Chapter 7 is a little more controversial than chapter 6. It attempts to show that patterns in living organisms might not be specifically encoded in DNA, but might result from gradient chemical reactions and diffusion in some species. In other words, DNA only needs to encode the production of the right chemicals at the right time and macroscopic rules using rather simple mathematics do the rest.
Chapter 8 deals with speculation about sexual selection and how it relates to such things as the peacock's tail. In this chapter Stewart argues that in many instances the thing that is being selected is actually symmetry. Asymmetry can be a sign of a damaged or defective organism. The thing I enjoyed most from this chapter was the discussion about common hallucinations and how they might result from the way simple plane waves in the visual cortex map into our retina.
Chapter 9 was my favorite. It describes hypothetical harmonic generators that work together in various relative relationships of phase and attenuation to produce the natural gaits of quadrupeds and even bipeds. Stewart has done original work in this area, and so this chapter has some of the most insight and technical backup. I've often wondered about this myself and contemplated the possibility that such natural harmonic generators might be somehow related to the tendency of our species to develop certain musical beats and to naturally move in rhythm with them.
Of course you will want to read chapter ten, which shows how rather simple rules can lead to rather complex looking spider webs. And don't forget to read chapter 11 which discusses the complex interrelationships of reefs, along with some rather interesting information regarding Von Neumann's amazing insights.
This isn't a book on mathematics - it's a book about how mathematics applies to biology. And it's mostly qualitative. There are no mathematical equations, for example.
Overall, I think this is a first-rate book. It's well written, engaging, has a complete index, copious notes, good figures, and brilliant color plates that I especially appreciated. You don't have to agree with everything Stewart has to say, but I think you will find his arguments intriguing, thought provoking, and stimulating regardless. If you love life and mathematics, this book should be in your library.
Duwayne Anderson, March 18, 2000
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The New Mathematics of the Living World
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