cover image BODY HEAT: Temperature and Life on Earth

BODY HEAT: Temperature and Life on Earth

Mark Samuel Blumberg, . . Harvard Univ., $22 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-674-00762-8

Some species like it hot and some like it cold, and biopsychologist Blumberg explains why in this somewhat jargon-laden exploration of how temperature defines the existence of everything on earth, from the Antarctica ice mass to deep ocean bacteria, from babies in the womb to plants that can melt snow. Despite clever chapter headings—"Then Bake at 98.6F for 400,000 Minutes"; "Cold New World"; "Fever All Through the Night"; "Livin' off the Fat"—the author's prose can sometimes be heavy going and even patronizing, particularly in early chapters when he attempts to explain the various laws of thermodynamics. But a reader's perseverance will pay off. By braiding together a spectrum of disciplines—including anthropology, ecology, physics, geography, medicine and psychology—Blumberg investigates how extremes of heat and cold dictate life's limits; by book's end, he has constructed an engrossing, fact-filled account of why all life is merely a matter of degrees. Among those facts: why hot peppers make us sweat, how fire walking works, the evolutionary roots of goose bumps and genital hair, and the function of fevers. He also notes connections between temperature and such human conditions as sleeplessness, jet lag, sex determination, anorexia and sudden infant death syndrome, information that makes the book more than just a collection of intriguing anecdotes. One hot topic not covered is global warming, though Blumberg alludes throughout his otherwise illuminating text to how fragile everything on earth is. (Apr.)