The Planet Remade

So, I meant to set up a new website and everything, but what with, well, you know, stuff, I haven’t quite got round to it. And right now, I am away on holiday. But this doesn’t mean I am not immensely proud of and excited by my new book, “The Planet Remade: How  Geoengineering Could Change the World”, published by Granta in the UK on October 1st and by Princeton University Press in the US on November 3rd. Here’s the Kirkus review, which is the only one out yet. It concludes:

An important account of cutting-edge research that will fascinate serious readers and demand the attention of policymakers.

But I should add that frivolous readers are utterly sure to find stuff in it for them, too.

Other people have said some nice stuff, too, when asked to by me or the publishers (a lot of it is at the publishers’ links above). I am fond of and grateful for this from Marek Kohn:

Written with the grace and clarity its subject demands, The Planet Remade offers just what the issue of climate change needs: fresh thinking about what can be done, based on deep respect for the planet, the science, and the concerns of people with differing points of view. It’s an enriching addition to the literature of possible worlds.

And the Samuel Johnson Prize, rather fabulously, has put the book on its longlist.

As with Eating the Sun, I’ll be posting links to all the reviews that I see. But not til we get back from our holiday.

You can pre-order/buy on Amazon UK, pre-order on Amazon US, or buy it from a bunch of other places.

If you’d like to hear me talk about this stuff, here are some places where I will be doing so in the UK over the next month; more will follow, along with US dates early in 2016. Or you could try this podcast from The Guardian

Places to see me
September 16, 2015, 2:12 pm
Filed under: Books

So, The Planet Remade is coming out on October 1st, if you live in the UK, or November 3rd, if you are in the US. You can pre-order through Amazon (UK|US) or a number of other sites. To help spread the word about this I will be making various appearances at literary festivals and the like. Here’s the list as of mid September. Do come along if you can

September 25th: I’m part of the inaugural Write on Kew festival. I’ll be in conversation with Jonathan Drori (@JonDrori) at 12:30 (details and tickets). Then at 19:30 I’m part of a special edition of Radio 4’s Inside Science, a panel at Kew that will be broadcast, I believe, the following week (for tickets email writeonkew@kew.org with BBC Inside Science in the subject line. Sold out!)

October 10th: I’m part of a panel on “What Happens Next”, part of the London Literature Festival at the Southbank at 14:00 (details and tickets). The other panellists are Eve Poole (@evepoole) and Mahesh Rao. The website says it is moderated by Sarfraz Manzoor but I have reason to believe that his place is in fact going to be taken by my dear colleague Emma Hogan (@hoganem)

October 11th: A discussion called “Our Sunburned Planet” at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with Nathalie Bennet of the Green Party (@natalieben) and my friend Chris Rapley (@ChrisRapley3131) at 18:45 (details and tickets). Earlier that day I expect to be in conversation with Simon Winchester about his new book Pacific: The Ocean of the Future (details and tickets)

October 16th: The Ilkely Literature Festival, at 19:30: this one seems at the moment to be just me! (details and tickets)

October 25th: The Manchester Literature Festival, where I believe I will be in conversation with Jo Bell (@Jo_Bell) at 16:00 (details and tickets). Earlier that day there will be events with writers from the nature-themed issue of Granta magazine that will by then be out and with Sarah Hall and George Monbiot. And here is Jo Bell’s lovely poem Doggerland.

I’ll add more dates as more come up: events in the US will probably be in January and February

Head count
October 20, 2013, 10:21 am
Filed under: Books, Media

Elizabeth Kolbert has an interesting book review on population, with a nitrogen lede, at The New Yorker. It mentions in passing an assessment that nitrogen fixation added two years to the length of the first world war. I’ve heard similar broad claims but would be interested in more detailed analysis; perhaps some is provided or referenced in Alan Weisman’s “Countdown” (Amazon UK|US), one of the books under review.

The review’s a  run through some current anti-natalism and pro-natalism books. The context is the twentieth-century population growth allowed by Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation and its continuation, abatement or reversal, and the fight between malthusians and cornucopians, though she doesn’t really pick a side on that. She acknowledges that malthusianism ahas so far been wrong, but not that it has to be.

Weisman is the anti-natalist, and fits my general stereotyping by being a man in his sixties (rule of thumb: when in an environmental conversation that has previously not been about population someone declares that the fundamental problem is population, but no one wants to talk about it, that someone will be an older man). Apparently he thinks that about 2 billion might be a “natural” population level and that this century will determine an “optimal” level for population (which from the context might be the level supportable after a large scale die off). It sounds as though I should probably look at this book, though I doubt I am going to enjoy it.

A little nit-picking. For those of us with an interest in photosynthesis (and if you don’t have such an interest, I have a book to recommend to you….) the idea that, thanks to Haber-Bosch. you and I “are eating bread made of air, and so, in a sense, are made of air as well,” draws a smile. Where does she think the rest of the bread comes from, if not from the air? I also think it’s a trifle unfair to give the impression that William Crookes was a straightforward malthusian when he specifically noted that chemical technology could and should solve the crisis of fertiliser supply that he saw coming. And while it’s her call to quote E O Wilson calling human population growth as “more bacterial than primate” (a quote she’s used before) equating humans with pestilence in that way always sets my teeth on edge.

I also note that Jonathan Last, author of “What to expect when no-one’s expecting” (Amazon UK|US) has some issues with the way the review treats his arguments.

Update: In a curious anti-natalist synchronicity, “Don’t have any more Mrs Moore” came on the radio just as I posted this… (Courtesy of Jeremy Hutchinson on Desert Island Discs)

Monocosms. They’re a thing now, apparently
August 21, 2013, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Books, Science fiction

A colleague asked me today if there was a word for planets that only have one landscape — places like Trantor, the city-planet that ruled Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Dune. These are a very widespread feature of science fiction, and frequently look like symptoms of limited imaginative investment: planets as a single type of place photocopied many times over and pasted onto the face of a very large sphere. In other hands, though, they can work rather well; the fact that all of Arrakis is a desert, one richly imagined, actually adds a great deal to the atmosphere of Dune, even if the ecosystem is a little hard to take seriously.

Thinking about it, I realised that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t. Tvtropes offers “single-biome planet“, but that doesn’t have quite the right feel for a term of art to be used by fans and critics alike. So I asked a few friends by twitter, and the magnificent Roz Kaveney came up trumps with the word “monocosm”.  A monocosm is any big, free-standing thing — often a planet, but possibly something else — based on a single idea or effect. Trantor and Arrakis are planetary monocosms in the most obvious way. See also Hoth and Tatooine.

More subtly (though this may be the only way in which it is subtle), Pyrrus, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, is a monocosm of affect rather than landscape, being a planet of danger. The Space Merchants is a monocosm of consumerism. Part of the success of Avatar 2 may lie in the degree to which Pandora is revealed not to be a monocosm. Is Escher’s Print gallery a monocosm? And so on.

It seems to me that this is a word that does something which other words have not, so far, been doing, and thus adds to our abilities to express ourselves. So there it is, a gift to the world, for use in criticism, essays and discussion in convention bars: the monocosm, a Kaveneologism.

“Tropes that have escaped into the real world”
November 4, 2012, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Books

For a while I’ve been meaning to write something – a post or a column or whatever – about the widespread fallacy that science fiction and the real world are in some way exclusive realms: that if something is happening in the real world it is not science fiction, and vice versa. This is obviously a mistake: there’s a robot with laser beams zapping rocks on Mars, there are debates about creating kids with deliberately arranged genomes, humans are changing the climate, etc. These are all the stuff of science fiction as it was constituted from, let’s say, 1925 to 1975, and they don’t stop being science fictional just because they are happening.

One of the reasons I haven’t actually written about this is that I’m not quite sure what this says about the world. I’m putting up this sort of placeholder, though, because I was struck by what Paul McAuley has to say about it means for science fiction in this excellent blog post on the distinctions people make between literary and genre fiction.

Too much science fiction looks ‘inward’, but I wouldn’t make a strong distinction between science fiction that attempts to revitalise genre tropes and science fiction that attempts to inject new ideas for ‘outside’; some of those tropes have escaped into the real world, and by engaging with them and using them to discover new meanings science fiction is in dialogue with both its own ideas and with the real.

That’s very true of Paul’s work: his The Secret of Life, for example, is a dialogue between science fiction staples (life on mars) and the real world (an ever more commercialised biology); The Quiet War is about what green politics could mean long term as well as dogfights in the rings of Saturn. The bravura “invasive species” moment in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 brilliantly plays a staple of science fiction off against real-world ecological concern. These are exciting ways that science fiction can deal with the fact that some of its traditional subject matters are now part of the reality of the world — in Paul’s words,

laying the groundwork for all kinds of debates that stimulate writers and readers, and refresh the field and widen its possibilities, and crack open the limitations and boundaries (too often self-imposed) that, according to critics like Krystal, consign genre fiction to the outer dark of the second-rate.

So science fiction has ways to deal with the fact that it has infected/invaded/annexed the real world, and Paul is clearly right that the prospect of using and developing those means is an exciting one. But it’s not yet clear that the real world has good ways of talking about the fact that it is in part science fictional, which is the deficit that I really want to address.

Copenhagen reading list
October 3, 2009, 5:41 am
Filed under: Books, Published stuff

Roger Pielke Jr, Joe Romm, Ron Oxburgh and Rajendra Pachauri — Together at Last!

The excellent Anna Barnett of Nature Reports Climate Change (follow her on twitter; read her on Climate Feedback) has coerced various people into recommending books to read in preparation for Copenhagen. Here’s the whole sherbang; below extracts  (with mine in full, because it’s my blog and my copyright…)

Joe Romm recommends the forthcoming Al Gore book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (Amazon US|UK)

Based on 30 of Gore’s ‘Solutions Summits’ as well as one-on-one discussions with leading experts across multiple disciplines, the book aims, in Gore’s words, “to gather in one place all of the most effective solutions that are available now”.

Tony Juniper goes for something that’s been around a little longer — Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Amazon US|UK)

At 4 °C, a very different world would emerge, and it would not be conducive to the maintenance of secure economic and social conditions. Unfortunately, this is the expected outcome from modest emissions cuts, presuming they are actually delivered.

Ron Oxburgh, formerly of Shell, the UK government, and Cambridge Earth Sciences (where he lectured me in first year geology) goes for a geologist’s book which I wasn’t aware of, Bryan Lovell’s Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change (Amazon US|UK)

An eyewitness account of oil producers’ shifting views on global warming. Unlike many writers on climate, he presents today’s changes in their long-term geological context and shows how this impeded understanding of human influences. After all, the argument went, the climate has changed many times in the past, so what is different today? Lacing the story with personal anecdotes, Lovell describes a slow evolution in the industry from scepticism and hostility to a widespread if not universal recognition that although coal is the main culprit, burning oil is a major and growing contributor to climate change.

Roger Pielke Jr reaches back more than a decade for Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by Yale anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott (Amazon US|UK)

Scott recites a litany of failed attempts at centralized planning that should serve as warnings to Copenhagen … [and] warns that the “mechanical application of generic rules” — such as emissions targets in climate policy — “is an invitation to practical failure, social disillusionment, or most likely both”. He proposes that, instead of convoluted centralized plans to remake society, we recognize the need for practical wisdom embodied in conceptions of ‘muddling through’.

Oliver Tickell’s Kyoto2: How to Manage the Global Greenhouse (Amazon US|UK), recommended by Mark Lynas, argues that the whole basis of the Copenhagen negotiations has things the wrong way round

Are we really going to try to police the carbon burned by close to 7 billion individuals? A better option, Tickell suggests, is to regulate production by setting a global cap on the amount of carbon being drilled, dug and piped out of the ground. Don’t work with individuals or even governments: auction carbon production rights to companies instead. There are then only a few hundred agents, not a few billion, to worry about. And instead of fighting over who has to make emissions cuts, fight over which countries get the auction cash.

Andy Revkin quite rightly suggests we should all read Mike Hulme’s book, mentioned here before, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Amazon US|UK)

The deep divisions among the variegated parties coming together in Copenhagen — deeply poor countries, fast-growing giants, established powers — are unlikely to be easily bridged in a single accord. Each faction has, in essence, a unique definition of the climate challenge: for the poorest, it’s about adaptation and equity; for the richest, it’s about energy technology and markets; for the forested, it’s about credit for carbon stores. Hulme’s argument bolsters predictions by long-time observers of climate diplomacy that a grand agreement is less achievable than a set of specific deals on particular issues.

The aforementioned Mike Hulme, for his part, urges us towards The Sustainability Mirage: Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on Climate Change by John Foster (Amazon US|UK)

This is a challenging book that explores some crucial social and psychological realities of climate change. Foster engages with the deepening tension that humans face, living in the overconsuming present while being aware of the unrepresented future. He honestly reveals some of the structural limitations of the sustainable-development paradigm and struggles with interpreting the value–action gap that all of us, to varying degrees, encounter in our behaviour. But you won’t hear too much about this during the Copenhagen conference. So read it.

Rajendra Pachauri, reasonably enough, I suppose, recommends the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (IPCC download) by, well, Rajendra K. Pachauri and & Andy Reisinger

A unique document that should top the reading list of anyone trying to understand the scale of the climate challenge.

And I, a little off piste, sing the praises of Stewart Brand‘s new Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (Amazon US|UK)

This book is not going to help anyone get to grips with the intricacies of the UN climate negotiations, but if you want to lift your head from the trenches for an overview of the twenty-first century, it’s a great place to start. Brand has been championing clear long-term visions since he campaigned for NASA to photograph the Earth from space in the 1960s, later setting up such farsighted institutions as the Whole Earth Catalog, the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation.

His new book, though presented in small chunks that are enticing to skip in and out of, nevertheless builds up into a lucid big picture put together with experience, wisdom and optimism. Brand tackles touchy issues such as the importance of urbanization, the potential of genetic engineering and the practical case for nuclear power, fully aware that many of the environmentalist readers he hopes to reach will start out disagreeing with him. He refuses either to pander to their prejudices or to take delight in shocking them, preferring engagement, reason and a leavening of wit. He simply argues persuasively, on the basis of wide reading, for the positions he thinks will best allow humans to shore up nature so that nature in turn can help preserve humanity.

Interesting that no one recommended David McKay’s Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air (Amazon UK|US, discussed here before); I guess most of the panel went bigger picture than that, but it is still a vital read for people thinking about how what the politicians say might actually pay out in terms of nuclear on the ground , wind at sea, biomass in the hearth and so on.Feel free to nominate your own additions, either here or over at the Climate Feedback blog.

If I had a kindle, it would have all of them loaded up well before December 6th. If I have to take the damn things on the train, I’ll probably cull the list. But it does seem to me an excellent list from which to cull.

Update: I’m not paying any attention to the FTC mullarkey, other than hearing about it at third hand, but it probably behooves me in general to note that links to Amazon on this site generate a kickback to me if there’s a sale, and if I’ve remembered to muck around with the URL in the right way.

Cosmic Gall
January 27, 2009, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Books, Nature writing

John Updike, who died today, had far greater claims to fame than this poem, from 1960, first published in The New Yorker and collected in Telephone Poles and Other Poems. But it’s a poem that I love. I once loved it simply for its fun and for the wow-ness of neutrinos; now I do so also, in part, because it deals with the fundamental paradox of my line of work. When you write about the material, however wonderful you may find it or make it, it remains but the material, and there will always be ways in which matter can be dismissed.

NEUTRINOS, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
and painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed — you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

Related thoughts can be found in a This I Believe essay on NPR

Image from Flickr user Henry, under CreativeCommons license. Wish I could make some sort of micropayment for rights on the poem.

Do the math
January 22, 2009, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Books, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

Reading David McKay’s Sustainable Energy — Without the hot air (Amazon UK|US) is something I would advise people to do. You can get it free from his website, but I must say the physical object is a very nice thing to have in your hands. It’s a Smil-like work, premised on facts, a pocket calculator and a clear head. As well as leading to interesting conclusions which I shall probably blog separately, it also encourages the mindset of making sure the underlying maths behind what you are saying makes sense. Roger Pielke Jr applies this mindset to the Times:

Today’s New York Times has an editorial in which it claims that:

The plain truth is that the United States is an inefficient user of energy. For each dollar of economic product, the United States spews more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than 75 of 107 countries tracked in the indicators of the International Energy Agency. Those doing better include not only cutting-edge nations like Japan but low-tech countries like Thailand and Mexico.

This is just wrong.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration on energy consumption (BTUs) per unit of GDP (PPP) shows that the United States is more efficient than about 68% of all countries. Similarly, the United States emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of GDP is better than 69% of countries.

To be sure, there are a number of countries that make excellent models for how the United States might become more efficient and reduce the carbon intensity of its economy, including Japan and Germany. However, as models to emulate, Mexico and Thailand, as suggested by the Times, are probably not the best examples.

Decarbonizing the economy will be an enormous task. It will be impossible if the problem is fundamentally misunderstood.

The key point is that you need to consider both the carbon associated with the country’s primary energy production and the efficiency with which that energy is used. So for example burning a lot of coal and then using the energy efficiently is a different problem from burning a lot of natural gas and using the energy inefficiently. There are problems in both, but they aren’t the same problems.

All this is more important but less entertaining than the tale of Congressman Eric Massa’s fuel-cell powered drive to DC, a massive math fail reported with relish on Gas 2.0

The fuel-cell car that Massa selected to drive the aforementioned 300 miles only had a range of 175 – 200 miles (depending on who you believe), and there were exactly zero (0) hydrogen fuel cell filling stations en route.

Not to let silly little obstacles like “numbers” get in his way, the good congressman decided that he could solve this problem.  He’d simply drive two (2) hydrogen fuel-cell powered cars to DC.  (!?)

I think it happened like this:  with the range problem solved, Massa could focus on the second logistical barrier standing in his way.  Namely, that he had to switch cars somewhere between New York and DC.  Massa, now faced with a problem he could understand and wrap his brain around, decided that the best way to make sure the second car would appear when he needed it was … wait for it … TO TOW A SECOND FUEL-CELL CAR BEHIND A FULL-SIZE SUV! (!!?)

It gets even better: enjoy.

A lost world
November 9, 2008, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Books, Published stuff
Michael Crichton, 1942-2008  Jon Chase photo/Harvard News Office

Michael Crichton, 1942-2008 || Jon Chase photo/Harvard News Office

Michael Crichton has died of cancer at the age of 66. To create a number one book, film or TV show is quite something; to sit in those three slots simultaneously, as his friend James Fallows recalls him doing in the early 1990s, must be unparalleled. Nice anecdote from Maxim; apposite insights as offered to The Onion.

“But if we can somehow extract his DNA, then we can replicate him, and all the other dead authors, and put them on display for the world to behold. We don’t need to consider the consequences, let’s just go ahead and do it.”

Climate-and-science-policy-blogger Chris Mooney is debating his legacy over at The Intersection. In the context of climate change it was pretty poor, as plenty of people have already argued. People who focus on the climate side of State of Fear, though, miss the linked issue of how poor a book it is by Crichton’s own standards — flabby and silly and drab and lax. The views-on-issues embedded in Crichton novels were often unconvincing or wrong, but in Rising Sun and Disclosure, to take two examples, the books work as books regardless. Rising Sun works particularly well, in fact; I think it ws the first thriller really to understand what mobile phones mean for such stories, and to incorporate them into both the storytelling and the structure.

I read him from childhood and I think I must have read almost all the novels other than the pseudonymous Lange ones (though for some reason, it now strikes me, I never read Eaters of the Dead). All I can remember ever writing about him was a review of Prey, for The New Yorker, of which I remain fond in that it pretty much nailed what I wanted to say.

Crichton explains more things, with more conviction, than any other thriller writer around. The philosophical ruminations and product specifications are so deftly interspersed in the run, hide, blow-things-up stream of his narrative that, rather than interrupt the tension, they actually heighten it. The effect is like tight crosscutting in a film, although, perversely for such a frequently filmed author, it is impossible for a filmmaker to capture. A director can cut from scene to scene but not from scene to idea. Steven Spielberg nods toward Crichton’s technique when he has one of the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” stalk through an orientation film explaining its own creation, with projections of the creature’s DNA sequences sliding over its grainy skin. But that’s a joke, not a functional equivalent. What does make Crichton filmable is a happy knack for transforming big ideas into antagonists roughly the size and shape of a man. Velociraptors, killer gorillas, chip-headed cyborgs, gunslinging robots, cannibal Neanderthals, Demi Moore—these are the sort of things Hollywood knows how to make frightening.

(According to the New Yorker’s book blog, these are pretty much the only nice things writers there ever had to say about him; it also fits, I see in retrospect, with my sense of how well he used mobile phones as interruptions-that-aren’t.)

That intercutting and mixing in of real and pseudo-real references and instruction books and print outs and the like, especially in that first great breakthrough The Andromeda Strain, was very much a thing of the sixties, flashed around in science fiction like Stand on Zanzibar and with roots in Dos Passos and the collage-y, found-art aspects of Burroughs and related beats; I remember as a kid being completely baffled by the inclusion of technical specifications from ad copy for a rocket launcher or something similar in a Jerry Cornelius story, and also entirely but somewhat thrillingly unclear about which things in the Andromeda Strain were made up. It makes me wonder if Michael Crichton read New Worlds; seems entirely plausible, not least because of the year in Cambridge in the mid 1960s. If so he found a far more lucrative way to cash in on some of the same experimental techniques and catastrophic concerns. (Parts of Mike Harrison’s New Worlds critique of Stand on Zanzibar in 1969 could well be applied to Crichton: Mike found the Brunner  “…marred by a lack of metaphor. Brunner is an inventive writer; his ability to theorise and document a feasible future is undeniable. But his success in evoking that future through images is limited…”)

Crichton, though, foreswore the future, except to the degree that it was already perceivable in the present (maybe his interest in collages/intercutting bore a trace of Burroughs’s belief that “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”) This was one of the reasons that I think calling him a sort-of science fiction writer, as Mark Lawson does in a nice appreciation, is as far as one can go in that direction (the fact that Lawson seems quite to have approved of Crichton is another reason to doubt that he was really SF, a genre for which Mark gives every indication of having no sympathy at all). Crichton’s not-quite-SF-ness  was part of the argument of that New Yorker piece (quote contains spoilers)

Crichton is forever describing things that could change the world—but don’t. The Andromeda strain of space germs mutates into harmlessness and goes away; the lost city of the Congo is wiped from the map by lava; in “Sphere,” the discoverers of the extraterrestrial artifact of untold power use that power to wish it into retroactive nonexistence. The fact that Crichton has no interest in showing what might have happened is what makes him a writer of suspense fiction, rather than of science fiction. A science-fiction writer would naturally want to see what would happen if the technologies stayed out of control (as most do), and might even want to ask whether the consequences would be all bad (as they often aren’t). Might not free-range dinosaurs make Costa Rica an even more interesting place than it is today? What if nanoswarms offered promise as well as peril? “Prey,” with its kill-them-all-and-get-out approach, is neither as frightening nor as fascinating as Greg Bear’s novelette of twenty years ago, “Blood Music,” in which the characters, transformed by the nanotechnology within them, become both far more and much less than human.

The fact that Crichton read and brooded over his critics is pretty well attested, and so it wasn’t just an immensely exaggerated sense of self importance that led me to wonder idly whether Next, his last pre-posthumous novel, was in some way a reply to this critique. Like State of Fear it is rambly, but in this case more happily so, and its broad sweep means that its various genies can’t be bottled back up at the end — it has an openness to the future that I hadn’t seen in his work before. It will be interesting to see what the posthumous book is like — and sad there will be no more.

Picture of Crichton by Jon Chase; will be taken down if he objects

Carl Zimmer’s “Microcosm”
July 20, 2008, 10:50 am
Filed under: Books, Published stuff

I just had the pleasure of reviewing Carl‘s “Microcosm” (Amazon UK | US) for the Sunday Times. Excerpt:

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.

You can read the whole review here. Much more, unsurprisingly, on The Loom, Carl’s blog.