If you are interested in how living things work down at the cellular level, then this is a good time to be alive. It is not, however, an equally good time to be reading popular-science books. While evolution gets a lot of ink devoted to it, in part because it is fascinating and in part because some people, absurdly, continue to see it as problematic, the molecular processes that evolution shapes go comparatively unsung. Books seeking to explain quarks or superstrings are easy to find, reflecting the belief that physics is more profound the smaller the scale at which it occurs. But a similar approach doesn’t hold for biology, and books seeking to explain the building of a cell wall, or the mechanics of replicating a DNA molecule, or the central importance of adenosine triphosphate to everything you will ever do, are hard to come by.
This is one of the reasons why Carl Zimmer’s elegant and engaging Microcosm is so welcome. The promise of the title is that highly specific knowledge about the workings of one unobtrusive and unspectacular creature can reveal fundamental things about the world at large, and the promise is fulfilled in more ways than most readers would, I suspect, think possible. It shows quite nicely that, in the right hands, molecular biology is a lot more revealing about life in general than particle physics is about stuff in general…
Perhaps the phrase that will resonate with me longest, though, is the one he uses to frame the discussion of E. coli as a workhorse of biotechnology and a proving ground for the more ambitious redesigns of life – “playing nature” – so much richer in its implications than the tediously Faustian “playing God”. If you want to get a clearer idea of the sort of nature that science can now play with, this is the book for you.
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