Book Review: Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

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McFadden and Al-Khalili present the lay reader with a fascinating and engaging explanation of how quantum physics might help explain life. From the nano-machine-like workings of enzymes, to the astonishing efficiency of photosynthesis, and many other examples, the authors describe how quantum physics can help us understand when classical physics cannot.

The book begins by explaining a bit about what quantum physics is. Central to the book is a challenge of the belief that quantum physics only work at the scale of the tiniest particles and only at extremely low temperatures – in other words, not anywhere near the temperatures friendly to life. Yet at the atomic scale, many processes within living organisms, such as photosynthesis, seem to rely on a quantum nature.

If you enjoy books like Stephen Hawking’s classic A Brief History of Time, you will probably enjoy Life on the Edge. It has plenty of nerdy science “wow” factor, and aims for accessibility without crossing into condescension.

  • Overall rating: ★★★★½
  • Subject: ★★★★★
  • Pace: ★★★½
  • Style/tone: ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books (bloggingforbooks.com) at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness, by Sy Montgomery

Audio edition published by HighBridge Company, 2015

Dewey class number: 594/.56

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Rating: ★★★★

Summary: The author documents her experiences with octopuses at the New England Aquarium and in the wild. She records the profound, intimate, and emotional relationships she builds with these strange, fascinating, and intelligent creatures.

Thoughts: The book raises some intriguing issues and questions, some of which are scientific, some of which are philosophical or even metaphysical. What is consciousness? If some animals have it, do all animals have it? If animals are far more conscious and intelligent than we have heretofore recognized, what does that mean for us, ethically?

The author’s descriptions of octopuses and other marine animals were vivid and absorbing. The picture she paints of aquariums is glowingly positive, and I found it interesting that among all the discussion of animal intelligence, the issue of wild animals in captivity only came up once, and was quickly dismissed (they have better, longer lives at the aquarium). Perhaps it was beyond the purview of this book to address the issue on a wider scale.

The book isn’t long, and never got tedious or boring. For my personal tastes, I would have preferred more scientific descriptions and facts, and less speculation about things like souls. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the title. Nonetheless, the question that the author is asking the reader to consider is an important one. If it’s possible to experience kinship with, and recognize consciousness in, a creature as alien to us as an octopus — what about the rest? What about each other?

Note: I listened to the audio edition of this book. It was read by the author, who is a good story-teller. The production was of good quality, although you could hear the sound of pages turning, and the reader pausing for breath, which I found distracting. The author’s inflection was also, at times, a bit over-exuberant, but at least never boring. Overall, a good audio production.