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Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival [Paperback]

4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

30 Dec 2002

The debut of a female Steve Jones – likeable, literate, lucid and laconic. A sprightly, lavishly illustrated book on the science of human survival.

How do people survive extremes of heat, cold, depth, speed and altitude? This book explores the limits of human survival and the physiological adaptations which enable us to exist under extreme conditions. In man’s battle for survival in the harshest of environments, the knowledge imparted by physiology, the ‘logic of life’, is crucial. What causes mountain sickness? Why is it possible to reach the top of Everest without supplementary oxygen, yet be killed if a plane depressurises suddenly at the same altitude. Why are astronauts unable to stand without fainting when they return to Earth? Why do human divers get the bends but sperm whales don’t? Will men always be able to run faster than women? Why don’t penguins get frostbite?

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Paperback: 347 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (30 Dec 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520234200
  • ISBN-13: 979-0520234207
  • Product Dimensions: 2.4 x 14.6 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,343,740 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

In Life at the Extremes Frances Ashcroft, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, investigates the related questions: how much can the human body endure? What can it survive, what causes it to fail? Why can some creatures tolerate conditions that would kill others? The extremes in question, to which bodies are periodically subjected, either voluntarily or not, include the limits of endurable temperature and pressure; physical constraints on speed; the weightlessness, vacuum and utter cold of space; and a number of environments that, for various reasons, are so unpleasant as to limit drastically the options of life-forms that attempt to inhabit them. By its nature, such a subject does not lend itself to continuous narrative, and Life at the Extremes may be best regarded as a kind of anthology into which one can dip to pull out examples, cheerful or gruesome, of what can happen to living tissue at the extremes. Here is Mr Blagden, accompanied by some eggs, a raw steak and a dog, entering a room heated to 105 degrees C, in the late 18th century. Fifteen minutes later the steak and eggs were cooked but Mr Blagden and the dog were not. A clear and absorbing explanation of mammalian heat regulation follows. Here are dreadful pictures of frost-bitten extremities; Sir Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile; a frog frozen solid in a block of ice but still alive and well; divers and the bends; astronauts and the redistribution of bodily fluids in weightlessness; flamingos enduring their caustic soda lakes; the physiology of the chilblain. Frances Ashcroft writes warmly and with wit: her many illustrative anecdotes are well chosen and provoke much thought about how life copes with, and adapts to, the physical circumstances it finds itself in. --Robin Davidson --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


‘She has the power of making the armchair adventurer feel quite frail. Add to that her gift for carving deep into your mind how vulnerable our species is to extreme conditions, and you are in for a thrilling read.’ New Scientist

'I read “Life at the Extremes” with horrid delight…It is extremely good, crammed with invaluable information but you don’t need a degree in cryptocryogenics to understand it. Here is a scientist who can enthral even as she instructs – and the way she accomplishes this is by telling adventure stories…As a testament to the tenacity of the human race, this book is a potent mix of the ingenious, the heroic and the hardy.’ Literary Review

‘For would-be explorers snuggled up in their armchairs – or, indeed stretched out on the beach – this book, with its many vicarious thrills, makes for ideal reading.’ Economist

‘A very good book…which works both as a continuous narrative of delightful vignettes and a quick reference guide. Easy to read, entertaining and informative.’ Sunday Times

‘Ashcroft is good at opening up aspects of daily life normally sealed off to the non-scientist.’ Sara Wheeler, Spectator

--This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great stories and good science 30 Oct 2001
By A Customer
I love this book.
It is a fascinating insight into how the human body copes with extremes of heat and cold, heights and depths, etc. Frances AShcroft explains how our biology copes with these extremes.
And it is not just the biology. The book is full of little stories. There are stories that make me squirm, and say "Stop! Don't tell me any more!" And then I just have to read the next one. And there are other stories that cause me to wonder, like the scientists who carry out experiments on themselves, experiments that lead to all sorts of suffering.
The great thing is this: while I am reading all these stories about life at the extremes, I am also absorbing a lot of basic information about how our bodies work normally, almost without realising I am learning. I was talking to someone about this book, and I started to rabbit away about what happens in an aircraft if it suffers explosive decompression - I was surprised at what I was able to tell my pals.
This book is full of wee stories, gruesome, outrageous, fascinating, inspiring.
It is a brilliant source of tales to tell in the pub.
It is very informative about human physiology, and also history.
To Paul and Shula who gave me this book for my birthday - thanks indeed. Its great.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Makes you love to learn! 10 Aug 2000
By A Customer
This is so fascinating everybody will want to take Frances Ashcroft's physiology course at Oxford! OK, maybe you didn't get into Oxford, but don't worry, even if you are merely the average "gentle reader" you'll learn a terrific amount about the human machine from "Life at the Extremes". And it will probably stick because the extremes provide built-in vividness which Ashcroft exploits beautifully with a lucid and personable writing style. Hearts and lungs and limbs and highs and lows - you'll gain new respect for the enormous flexibility of our body systems. And you'll learn directly where the body's limits come from. Like everybody, I know water boils at lower temperatures as heights, but hadn't thought about what that means in the lungs. It's not trivial. Atop Everest, water vapor from body fluids takes up 19% of the lung space compared to 6% at sea-level. Less space for oxygen! Along the way, learn about a bona fide human aura (see the Schlieren photograph of a naked human) - guaranteed non-flakey. Given that most of us live where humans can't survive year-round without creating special survival environments, "the science of survival" isn't just for the elite. Thankfully, Frances Ashcroft makes this science accessible and immensely enjoyable.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Fascinating examples of stressful situations in which humans may find themselves, with the physiological explanation presented in a highly accessible fashion. Extremely well-written, very much for both non-scientists and scientists, but particularly useful for the sportsman or woman who would like to know why their body reacts as it does to a range of conditions such as high or low pressure, excess or paucity of oxygen, extreme heat or cold, and so on. Great fun!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating stuff for the non-scientist 29 Aug 2000
By A Customer
As I read this book I realised how much fascinating stuff I didn't know about our environment.And the great beauty of Frances Ashcroft's book is that she makes it all accessible to the ordinary reader,with exciting stories and lucid explanations that the non-scientist can understand.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating subject made hard work of 17 May 2005
As a scientist who spends a great deal of time at altitude and in the cold I had been wanting to read this book for a long time. Now that I am reading it, my interest in the subject will keep me going to the end, but will require almost super-human effort. This really is 'reading at the extremes'.
Maybe it's the fault of the editor and not the author. However the author set out to write a science book for the general reader but the book reads like the worst kind of science text book. Concepts and laws that I am already familiar are described in a confusing and unclear manner.
Anecdotes are left hanging 'Tragedies still occur, however... One well-publicized disaster was that of Chris and Chrisy Rouse, a father and son team with considerable diving experience, who died of decompression sickness in 1992 while exploring the wreck of a German U-boat.' That's all the author says. Not what happened or why, or went wrong and why. What the anecdote is illustrative of or what connects the anecdote to the preceding paragraph.
The science is sound, but presented in such a muddled manner as to be over complicated and off putting. 'The lowest barometric pressure at which the normal oxygen concentration of the lungs (100 Torr) can be maintained when breathing pure oxygen is about 10,400 metres...' The paragraph sets out to tell us the lowest barometric pressure and gives us the answer in altitude. Useful information can, of course, be extrapolated from this but in a book written for the general reader I wouldn't expect to have to.
If you are medically qualified and want to begin to extend your knowledge and interest into this subject area then this book would be a good springboard for further reading. If you are a more general reader, I recommend you seek out an alternative.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Good book
Published 13 days ago by R M APPLEBY
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect - Good Read
A purchase for my University course with particular highlight to adaptive physiology. A great read and not too hard a read either. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Hona
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
This book is very easy to read with great explanations and references. You will learn a lot about nature and technology alike. Read more
Published 7 months ago by MrGreen
5.0 out of 5 stars Life at extremes
Very happy with this book, was quick delivery and is a very interesting read. Will really help me with my uni module thank you
Published 10 months ago by Milly
5.0 out of 5 stars Geeky interesting
A great book in very readable chapters. A great deal of information, well written. I have now bough 3 to share with friends and family
Published 16 months ago by Nicola Beale
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book
Basing this review on what my little scientist sister told me - she said it was amazing, interesting and a great read. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amy
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, readable, scary
What happens to your body when it is subjected to temperatures or pressures far, or even only just, outside the narrow margins of those in everyday life? Nasty stuff! Read more
Published on 29 Jun 2012 by H. Hulme
4.0 out of 5 stars good science read
Really interesting read even for those not a great science fan.

Some parts require thinking but the book takes you straight through each topic explaining in a very... Read more
Published on 16 Jun 2012 by bb
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
This book was excellent, it is fascinating and Frances draws on personal experience to bring the book to life. The book is great for medical students and casual readers
Published on 6 April 2012 by flyinfishy
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant read!
I absolutely love this book. I got it years ago but can easily keep coming back to it for a bit of vicarious adventure!
Published on 14 Oct 2010 by Ms. B. Vallely
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