cover image Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

Carl Zimmer. Dutton, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-18271-0

“The question of what it means to be alive has flowed through four centuries of scientific history like an underground river,” writes journalist Zimmer (She Has Her Mother’s Laugh) in this stimulating inquiry into biological fundamentals. He explores scientific phenomena that challenge simplistic concepts of what life and intelligence consist of (such as the notion that life is “something that sustained itself through chemical reactions”). Among his subjects are a girl who was declared brain-dead in 2013, but went on growing for years; hibernating bats whose metabolisms all but stop; and hypotheses about what creatures might lurk in the half-frozen sea of a moon of Saturn (namely, life that wouldn’t need sunlight). The author travels to laboratories, caves, and botanical gardens for colorful depictions of cutting-edge experiments, as with his reportage on a slime mold without neurons that “followed the trail of sugar into the cul-de-sac and hit the acetate wall. But it did not give up its search. It sprouted tentacles to either side.” Zimmer discusses scientists’ various definitions of life as well as different schools of thought, such as “vitalists,” who believe life has a purpose, and “mechanists,” who believe that life is “made up of parts that work together, much like a clock.” The result is a pop science tour de force that extracts provocative insights from life’s oddities. Agent: Eric Matthew Simonoff, WME. (Mar.)