Life's Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World

Overview

"Stewart writes with such compelling clarity that general readers can share in the intellectual daring of his perspective."—Booklist An invitation to a hidden world In Life’s Other Secret, mathematician and award-winning science writer Ian Stewart reveals the way mathematics describes the origin, structure, and evolution of life. Featuring a sumptuous gallery of color illustrations demonstrating nature’s intricate wonders, here is an intriguing invitation to enter a world deeper than DNA, a world where number series bloom in springtime and
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Overview

"Stewart writes with such compelling clarity that general readers can share in the intellectual daring of his perspective."—Booklist An invitation to a hidden world In Life’s Other Secret, mathematician and award-winning science writer Ian Stewart reveals the way mathematics describes the origin, structure, and evolution of life. Featuring a sumptuous gallery of color illustrations demonstrating nature’s intricate wonders, here is an intriguing invitation to enter a world deeper than DNA, a world where number series bloom in springtime and equations gallop across the plains. From the latest theory of how life started to the rules governing the shapes into which animals grow to the ancient patterns of evolution, Stewart illuminates the fundamental forces that shape our world.
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Editorial Reviews

Scientific American
...[A]n absorbing study of...how the search for mathematical laws that underlie the behavior of living organisms will illuminate [the] deep questions.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Without disputing the importance of biological research, Stewart Does God Play Dice?, author of the "Mathematical Recreations" column in Scientific American, claims that a deeper understanding of living systems will arise only through mathematical analysis. "This does not mean that biology can be reduced to mathematics," he notes, but that "the physical patterns... exploited by genes" can be shown to be mathematically governed. His examples, demonstrating how mathematical advances are capable of providing insight into a broad range of biological phenomena, are intriguing but may prove somewhat difficult and arcane for many readers. From a description of locomotion across a wide spectrum of animals, to explanations of their spots and stripes and their behavior in groups, Stewart illuminates how the principles of mathematics invariably lead to emergent properties not present in the component parts of an animal's physiology. Harder to follow still are the molecular-level explanations of DNA and RNA couplings and coilings, where Stewart questions the distinctions we use to separate life from non-life. Stewart has great optimism and ample vision, believing that "there may be a new kind of mathematical theory out there in the intellectual darkness"one that gives satisfying answers to why the patterns he maps play out the way they do, both at the molecular level and for large-scale systems like coral reefs to which he devotes an admittedly speculative chapter. Unfortunately, at this nascent stage, Stewart can provide only the faintest outlines of such a theory. Feb.
Library Journal
Is it possible that life is governed not just by genetics but by mathematical laws as well? Most scientists and the general public believe that DNA holds the secret of life and that once specific genes are located, diseases and reproduction can be cured or controlled. Award-winning science writer Stewart Nature's Numbers, Basic, 1995 believes that life is more than DNA codes and sequences, arguing that DNA can't come to life until its codes are activated by a series of complex reactions based on chemistry and physics. Stewart supports his theories through a tapestry of rhapsodic narratives regarding the uniqueness of snowflakes, the intricacy of butterfly wings, and the purpose of the peacock's tail, all of which are based on mathematical laws. The patterns and shapes of the natural world, which most people assume to be random or routine, Stewart shows as distinct or symmetrical because of scientific principles. Stewart writes with style and verve, displaying an impressive command of mathematics. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.Gloria Maxwell, Kansas City P.L., Kan.
Library Journal
While long an indispensable tool for the physical sciences, mathematics has only relatively recently been used to describe the symmetry of the living world. Stewart sees mathematical laws at work even at the level of DNA replication. (LJ 1/98)
Booknews
Popular science and mathematics author Stewart explains that the outcome of life is an interaction between genes and universal mathematical laws that control a growing organism's response to its genetic instructions. He discusses such questions as whether life is fundamentally different from the rest of creation, how animals as dumb as snails can make such symmetrical shells, why birds fly in flocks, and why each type of flower only grows a certain number of petals. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Scientific American
...[A]n absorbing study of...how the search for mathematical laws that underlie the behavior of living organisms will illuminate [the] deep questions.
Kirkus Reviews
Spectacular as the advances in genetics have been, the DNA molecule tells only part of the scientific story of life; much of the rest, this work argues, is built upon physical and mathematical principles only now being recognized. Stewart, who writes the "Mathematical Recreations" column for Scientific American, credits much of the groundwork for this study to D'Arcy Thompson, a Scottish biologist who died in 1948. The atoms of living beings are indistinguishable from those in a laboratory flask. Thompson's approach to this problem was to apply the laws of physics and mathematics to the shapes of living beings, from cells to complete organisms. Minimal surfaces, like those defined by soap bubbles, dictate that many small organisms will take the shape of regular solids. The spiral structures of other organisms, from shellfish to flowers, embody the Fibonacci series, a simple mathematical relationship. The markings of other creatures, from tropical fish to tigers and zebras, can be described by elegant mathematical formulas. As Stewart points out, these patterns are produced by genetics and evolution; but they can only be explained by examining the mathematical laws that genetics and evolution must conform to. With that in mind, Stewart takes the reader on a tour of the forms and structures of living things. We see the elegant symmetry of DNA and the geometry of viruses and cells. The evolutionary component of the subject is not neglected, e.g., the profound change of Earth's atmosphere to one with a large component of free oxygen required geometric strategies for organisms to protect themselves from the reactive gas. And new mathematical tools (fractals, chaos theory) as well as computergraphics programs are opening up the subject to study on a scale Thompson never could have achieved. Stewart makes his case in fascinating detail and with an easy, readable style that should make this material accessible to a wide range of readers. (100 drawings and photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780471296515
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 1/27/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 285
  • Sales rank: 1,264,717
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

IAN STEWART, Ph.D., has written or coauthored numerous books, including Does God Play Dice?, Fearful Symmetry, Collapse of Chaos, and Nature’s Numbers. In addition, he writes the "Mathematical Recreations" column in Scientific American, serves as mathematics consultant to New Scientist, and is a regular contributor to Discover and The Sciences. In 1995 Dr. Stewart received the Royal Society of England’s Michael Faraday Medal for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of science.
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Table of Contents

What Is Life?

Before Life Began.

The Frozen Accident.

The Oxygen Menace.

Artificial Life.

Flowers for Fibonacci.

Morphogens and Mona Lisas.

The Peacock's Tale.

Walk on the Wild Side.

An Exaltation of Boids.

Reef Wars.

In Search of Secrets.

Notes.

Further Reading.

Credits.

Index.

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