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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars SO much better than the TV series, 24 Feb. 2013
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This review is from: Wonders of Life (Hardcover)
Brian Cox is a marvellous presenter of science on TV, but his speciality is astrophysics. His TV venture into biological science, the series called "The Wonders of Life", shows all too clearly the dangers of a non-specialist entering science areas with which he is not intuitively familiar. Although the "Life" programmes have been reasonable for the most part, there have also been too many examples of half accurate statements or comments, too many moments when a professional biological scientist like this reviewer reacts with a degree of horror. And, of course, the programmes have far too much of the nowadays standard televisual overdecoration. We know we're going to see endless irrelevant shots of Cox standing somewhere photogenic or sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle. But why, for heaven's sake, did he have to do his cloud chamber piece in the middle of the Kruger Park or Madagascar or wherever it was? Why, when he explains the origin of carbon from stars, are we shown graphics of windblown coloured clouds and bright lights? (Was the carbon supposed to be the red stuff or the white stuff?!) Behind the scenes of too many otherwise sensible TV programmes there are people obsessed with inclusion of nice looking shots and computer graphics, at the expense of relevance, significance or their ability to aid the viewer's comprehension.

All this is by way of introduction to my opening comment on the book that accompanies the TV series: it's really good! It contains a lot of excellent material, handsomely illustrated and nicely explained. For someone wanting to learn some basic biology, I'd recommend it simply because it approaches the topic from a point of view different from that of more "orthodox" biology texts; and there's no better way of learning any subject than to encounter the same material in different ways. The theme of the book, outlined in its introductory pages, is to discuss how the biology of a living organism can be accounted for by physics and chemistry and astronomy.

The book provides an excellent introduction not just about how living things tick, but also to matters such as current hypotheses of the initial chemical origins of life, the ways in which physical constraints affect the sizes, metabolic rates and life spans of living things, and much of the evidence for evolution of current species by natural selection. It describes in detail the anatomy and biochemistry underlying the functions of hearing and sight and explains how the many variants of ears and eyes seen among today's species snapshot all clearly arose from a very early ancestral stage of life.

There's a wonderful question biologists sometimes ask of people new to the subject: given that an acorn is small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, where has all the wood come from to make the full-grown oak tree? The answer - the air - surprises many people, but no reader of "The Wonders of Life" should be bemused. The explanations of photosynthesis and its evolutionary origins are truly magnificent.

"Wonders of Life" is not entirely beyond criticism. It is intended as a partner for a TV series, so some slack must be cut in that direction. Pictures of the senior author are inevitable in context, but we see Brian Cox's face in 35 of the book's photos, which works out at 1 in every 8 pages and seems excessive. Professor Cox has yet to master David Attenborough's remarkable knack of being seen in his productions without risking becoming their focus. Not one of the many light and electron micrographs in the book comes with a scale bar. This is not simply a pedantic carp: if you have no idea whether the object being illustrated is something like a tiny grain you could touch, or a lot smaller than that, or even really, really unimaginably tiny, you have an image but no context or understanding of what you see. Are cells of Bacillus megaterium really about four times as long as those of Mycoplasma mycoides and roughly the same length as a water flea? Since these (and several other) examples come from a section of the book called "Size matters" the authors just might have felt inclined to give us a sense of scale.

Overall, Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen have produced a thoroughly informative and entertaining voyage through aspects of biology viewed from the perspective of expertise in physics and chemistry. It explains things well, and is nowhere near so self-indulgent and, often, downright embarrassing as the TV series that spawned the book.
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