You can't read an science article in any publication these days without reading something about the search for extraterrestrial life, be that on Mars, the moons of Jupiter, or the planets orbiting distance suns discovered by the Kepler observatory. In his new book, "The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution", by Charles S. Cockell, the author argues that should life be discovered this life will be very similar to our own. The extraterrestrial biology will have evolved under the same pressures, and more importantly, the same physics, from which life on our planet has evolved. Thus things will be very familiar to us. Or not... One need only look at an octopus to realize just how different things could be. Life, however, will always involve carbon, oxygen, and water. Those seem to be the building blocks on our planet, and Cockell is spot on labeling those as the necessary building blocks for life on other planets as well. This, however, is nothing new. Specifically, the Periodic Table of Elements, describes everything there is to work with and suggesting life could emerge from an different combination of elements, is not to understand life, or the elements. Interestingly, he hearkens back to an episode of Star Trek, when an alien life form, known as the Horta, is discovered.
The writers of Star Trek actually got it right, according to Cockell. If life did emerge from another set of elements, they would have to be very close to carbon. The Horta was a silicon based life form. But also, to evolve it would be necessary to have the same basic environmental properties which would require a fluid, in our case water, and a gas, in our case oxygen, for the very basic properties of cellular life to gain energy and replicate.
Whereas Cockell has a very deep knowledge of biology he has only cursory understanding of math and physics. I think, however, the physics he applies, is mostly self evident, at least to an engineer. Maybe not for him based on his softer back ground in biology. This insight was so extraordinary for him he thought it worthy of an entire book. So maybe his audience is biologists. It can't be physicists, They will just yawn.
His academic upbringing forced him to be way too repetitive. I felt like he was retelling his entire argument in every chapter.... I think 4 or 5 chapters would have been sufficient. 12 chapters just dragged on and on, beating the same dead horse... Of course he's also trifling with the creator...as any good biologist tends to do. But that's a different subject. Still I can't help but wonder that should we find extra-terrestrial life, who is going to be the first to ask said, alien, have you considered Jesus? Certainly not the biologist, but maybe the physicist?
Best part for me was his discussion of single cell evolution... Mapping out evolution at the cellular level was something completely new, not being a biologist, and I learned a few things.
This is not a book for physicists, this is a book for biologists who would otherwise wonder about evolutionary magic should they not been tuned into the preexisting physical laws of nature that constrain everything we understand above the quantum level. Strangely, this is also not a book for biologists, at least not a written with so many of the equations he has chosen. He's not really using fundamental laws, per se, he is just using math to calculate constraining limits. To understand what he is doing you kinda have to have had some physics or engineering in your back ground. You can't simply assume the math works, you have to do the math, and when you do the math it's not black and white. For the most part, he should have left the equations out of this book he has written for biologists. Of course then he destroys is thesis, maybe. Oh well. It was particularly annoying to me when when he presented an occasional hard number as fact, he should have been more accurate, or at least done the calculations himself. We don't contain a tennis court of absorption area in our gastrointestinal track, he's over by an order of magnitude. 10's of square meters, not 100's of square meters as he claims.
Start with three stars because overall, although well researched, there is nothing earth shattering in this book. Deduct a star for being so repetitive. Deduct another star for using equations that will be obtuse to biologists and simply wrong in other areas. Add a star back for his treatment of single cell evolution and of course add another star for the great use of a Star Trek reference. Three stars overall.