Charting the obsession with Dr. Frankenstein's monster and how Coleridge came to believe the whole universe was alive, Popular science writer Carl Zimmer leads readers all the way into the labs and minds of researchers working on engineering life from the ground up, asking: What does it mean to live?
... elegant, deeply researched ... Zimmer sprinkles his book with stories that both dazzle and edify the reader ... his analysis of virology is succinct but allows for complexity: He acknowledges the debates in the field, and allows the reader an inner glimpse into how scientists are learning to think about these 'borderlands' — microbes that are not alive, but can parasitize the biology of living beings ... Zimmer is an astute, engaging writer — inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory experiments to life. This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science. And it is bookended with the ultimate question: How do we define the thing that defines us?
One has the feeling, while reading this book, of fumbling through the unknown ... the poems of Erasmus Darwin are set alongside Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the chemistry of urea, to fascinating effect. I found myself feeling very grateful that Zimmer had drawn connections among these disparate themes. We biologists are often necessarily narrow in our perspective ... His breadth reveals more of the whole, however blurry, than would otherwise be available to the specialist ... By the end of the book, Zimmer had fully convinced me that the question of what it means to be alive is also best answered according to the purposes for which we ask—and that such inquiries will yield different outcomes depending on how we ask them.
No mere catalogue of errors, Life’s Edge guides us from an abandoned mine in the Adirondacks where bats hang in homeostatic slumber to a California start-up attempting to synthesize RNA-based medications. With these and other examples, Zimmer illustrates why it is so difficult to arrive at a common understanding of where life stops and starts—and how we might one day reach it ... lucid ... The care and precision with which Zimmer maps these complex and challenging issues inevitably prompt another question: Why does it matter how we define life? ... Ultimately, the pleasures of Life’s Edge derive from its willingness to sit with the ambiguities it introduces, instead of pretending to conclusively transform the senseless into the sensible. To read this book is to realize that life’s insistence on fluttering out of our grasp is a consequence of our desire to pin it down like a butterfly on a board.