This coming Sunday, May 29, 2016, I will be celebrating the 38th anniversary of my 21st birthday (coincidentally, it will also be the 29th anniversary of my 30th birthday). Where did the time go? What happened to the 1980s? (I think I must have had a bad beer 🙂
I'm actually quite sanguine about all of this, but I must admit that I have been pondering the topic of “life” a lot recently (see also My Genes Don’t Seem to Fit). The first question, of course, would be “What is life?” Did you ever grow a “crystal garden” as a kid? The result can be spectacular self-assembling crystals, but I doubt anyone amongst out number would consider these to be alive.
How about a virus? This is basically an inert molecule that doesn’t have the ability to reproduce by itself. On the other hand, once a virus has penetrated a more complex living cell, it can coerce that cell's molecular machinery to replicate itself, which certainly places viruses (or vira, but never viri or virii) in the borderland between living and not.
The next question might be “Where did life come from?” Until recently, and excluding religious accounts, we struggled to explain how life could spontaneously arise out of inert (non-living) materials. A closely related question is “Are we alone in the universe?”
With regard to the initial questions of what is life and where did it come from, there are three books that I would totally recommend to anyone. The first, Wetware: A Computer in Every Living Cell by Dennis Bray (see my review), simply blew my socks off. This ranks as one of the more thought-provoking books I've ever read. It completely opened my mind to the incredible beauty and complexity that is a living cell.
(Source: Max Maxfield)
Next up we have Life's Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann. In this masterpiece, Peter explains how — at the molecular level — the inside of a cell is like trying to conduct business in the middle of a molecular storm. Also, how molecular machines can act like tiny ratchets, transforming random motion into ordered activity, thereby creating the “purpose” that is the hallmark of life.
Rounding out this tempting trio we have The Machinery of Life by David S. Goodsell. Can you imagine what it would be like to be able to see detailed architectural diagrams describing the molecular machines inside the cell and the structure of the cell itself? Well, this is the book for you. In order to accompany his rich narrative, David has created a unique collection of sumptuous illustrations that make the insides of a cell come to life (no pun intended).
The double helix structure of DNA was first described in 1953 by American biologist James Watson and English physicist Francis Crick at the University of Cambridge. If I could get my time machine working and take the aforementioned books back to show to James and Francis, I think they would be blown away by how much we've learned in the decades following their discovery.
Last but not least, with regard to the question as to whether or not we are alone in the universe, may I be so bold as to recommend Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin. As I said in this review, prior to my reading this tome, had you asked me about the possibility of intelligent life in general — and intelligent life leading to a technological civilization with which we could possibly establish communication in particular — I would have said that I was a total believer. After reading this book, I'm no longer sure…
How about you? Do you ever find yourself contemplating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? If so, are there any books you would recommend to the rest of us?