Cockell leads up to that big message in gratifying chapters about much smaller things—ants, moles, cells, molecules, and atomic particles—and the physics that explains them and their biological functions. The last chapter reconsiders the role of contingency—the chance occurrence that changes something—in light of what the melding of physics and biology reveals about life processes and forms. Both magisterial and collegial, this may be the biology book of the year.
In a fascinating journey across physics and biology, Cockell builds a compelling argument for how physical principles constrain the course of evolution. Chapter by chapter, he aims his lens at all levels of biological organization, from the molecular machinery of electron transport to the social organisms formed by ant colonies. In each instance, Cockell shows that although these structures might be endless in their detail, they are bounded in their form. If organisms were pawns in a game of chess, physics would be the board and its rules, limiting how the game unfolds.
Much of the beauty of this book is in the diversity of principles it presents ... Cockell ends the book by celebrating the elegant equations that represent the relations between form and function. Rather than being a lifeless form of reductionism, equations, he argues, are our window into what physics renders possible (or impossible) for life to achieve. In equations, we express how our biosphere is full of symmetry, pattern, and law. Within them, we express the boldest claim of them all: that these limitations should be no less than universal.
An insightful argument that evolution, despite producing complex creatures as different as bacteria, bugs, and humans, must obey scientific laws ... Many readers will find the equations incomprehensible, but they will relish a lucid, provocative argument that the dazzling variety of organisms produced by 4 billion years of evolution may seem unbounded, but all follow universal laws.