Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own

Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own

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by David Toomey
     
 

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“Weird indeed, and not a little wonderful.”—Nature

In the 1980s and 1990s, in places where no one thought it possible, scientists found organisms they called extremophiles: lovers of extremes. There were bacteria in volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, single-celled algae in Antarctic ice floes, and fungi in the cooling

Overview

“Weird indeed, and not a little wonderful.”—Nature

In the 1980s and 1990s, in places where no one thought it possible, scientists found organisms they called extremophiles: lovers of extremes. There were bacteria in volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, single-celled algae in Antarctic ice floes, and fungi in the cooling pools of nuclear reactors.

But might there be life stranger than the most extreme extremophile? Might there be, somewhere, another kind of life entirely? In fact, scientists have hypothesized life that uses ammonia instead of water, life based not in carbon but in silicon, life driven by nuclear chemistry, and life whose very atoms are unlike those in life we know. In recent years some scientists have begun to look for the tamer versions of such life on rock surfaces in the American Southwest, in a “shadow biosphere” that might impinge on the known biosphere, and even deep within human tissue. They have also hypothesized more radical versions that might survive in Martian permafrost, in the cold ethylene lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, and in the hydrogen-rich atmospheres of giant planets in other solar systems. And they have imagined it in places off those worlds: the exotic ices in comets, the vast spaces between the stars, and—strangest of all—parallel universes.

Distilling complex science in clear and lively prose, David Toomey illuminates the research of the biological avant-garde and describes the workings of weird organisms in riveting detail. His chapters feature an unforgettable cast of brilliant scientists and cover everything from problems with our definitions of life to the possibility of intelligent weird life. With wit and understanding that will delight scientists and lay readers alike, Toomey reveals how our current knowledge of life forms may account for only a tiny fraction of what’s really out there.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Matthew Hutson
Weird Life includes many fields: biology, organic chemistry, planetary science, nuclear physics, astronomy, cosmology. And Toomey…pulls them together with amiable humor and appreciable verbal efficiency. In most cases he provides just the right amount of explanation…Weird Life is a good general introduction to science—and to the scientific process, demonstrating the abundance of disagreement, noting the importance of experimental replication, underscoring the influence of starting assumptions, and even pondering the differences in perspective between disciplines.
The New York Times Book Review - Richard Fortey
It's life, Jim, but not as we know it. The familiar phrase, apocryphally attributed to Star Trek, encapsulates David Toomey's study of the search for species flourishing in places where life was thought to be insupportable. Weird Life is a breakneck tour through natural history, encounters of an impossible kind, researchers as weird as the organisms they pursue that leads the reader to wonder where science ends and fantasy begins.
Richard Fortey - New York Times Book Review
“A breakneck tour through natural history, encounters of an impossible kind, researchers as weird as the organisms they pursue that leads the reader to wonder where science ends and fantasy begins.”
Jascha Hoffman - New York Times
“Conveys these far-out theories with precision and humor.”
AV Club
“Toomey is calm and clear-eyed. . . . A good man to have watching the skies, and the ocean floor.”
Justin Nobel
“Weird life, Toomey teaches us in his mind-bending book, is not just weirder than anything we can imagine, it is the weirdest thing we have ever imagined.”
Library Journal
Neither too technical for general readers nor dumbed down, Toomey's (dir., professional writing & technical communication, Univ. Massachusetts, Amherst; The New Time Travelers) latest covers the strange, stranger, and strangest of life forms "at the frontiers of biology," such as organisms that can survive extreme temperatures, on stars, or inside our own bodies. Drawing from such noted scientists and popular writers such as Carl Sagan and Dr. Seuss, Toomey manages to make this panoply of life forms at once strange and familiar, and in doing so will entrance his readers. VERDICT This title would be an excellent supplement to a physical science course and will be perfect for curious readers with humanities or social science backgrounds. It is far superior to the average "quirky science" works.—Susan E. Brazer, Salisbury Univ. Lib., MA
Kirkus Reviews
Living organisms don't tolerate boiling or subzero temperatures, massive pressure or an environment too rich in salt, acid or toxic chemicals--or so we thought for centuries. Biologists believed this until the mid 20th century, but they don't believe it today, writes Toomey (English/Univ. of Massachusetts-Amherst; The New Time Travelers: A Journey to the Frontier of Physics, 2007) in this imaginative account of "life" in its broadest terms. The author begins by describing "extremophiles," which thrive in wildly harsh conditions: chemical hot springs, inside sea ice, miles beneath the earth or at the ocean's bottom. Having dealt with creatures that, however weird, exist, he proceeds to even stranger life that may exist on Earth, the planets, elsewhere throughout the universe, and in the minds of writers and philosophers. Along the way, he addresses surprisingly difficult questions, such as how to define life. Is it anything that grows, consumes, converts matter to energy, ages and dies? Stars and flames do that. Is it living if it can reproduce? Crystals reproduce, and mules don't. How life originated remains elusive, but the good news is that it appeared so soon after the young Earth cooled that it may be part of the natural order and not a rare accident. As for the basics, life seems to require a backbone element that supports innumerable complex molecules. On Earth, this can only be carbon, but silicon may work at lower temperatures. Also essential is a liquid medium--water on Earth, but ammonia and methane might do elsewhere. An ingenious overview of anything that might be alive. The author remains true to science while coming to delightfully bizarre conclusions.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393089943
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
02/19/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
483,595
File size:
3 MB

Meet the Author

David Toomey is an associate professor of English and director of the Professional Writing and Technical Communication Program at the University of Massachusetts−Amherst. He lives in Amherst.

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Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
Despite all the advances that biological science has made during the past two centuries, it has not been able to come up with completely satisfying answers to two of its most fundamental questions - "Just what is life anyway?" and, "What are the physical limits within which life can survive?" Especially during the latter half of the 20th century and continuing right up to the present day, discoveries have repeatedly overturned or at least forced reconsideration of the definition of life and extensions of the boundaries of life's physical domain. Weird Life provides an excellent review of the state of what we know about the basic nature of living organisms and an up-to-date survey of every possible limiting, extreme physical environment in which life has been found. Organisms have been discovered thriving or surviving at temperatures well below the freezing and far above the boiling points of water; at pressures of thousands of psi and in the vacuum of space; in clouds; in deep, tight rock formations; just about anywhere anyone has bothered to look. And much of that newly discovered life can be categorized as "weird" - having evolved physical and biochemical characteristics very different from those of common ordinary Earth surface or marine organisms. So far, that extreme, "weird" life, despite its unique characteristics, still bears the genetic and biochemical fingerprints that clearly link it to "ordinary", familiar life. But, if life can survive under such extreme conditions, could truly weird (employing alternative chemistries, alternative energy sources, alternative physics, even) organisms be living among us or on distant worlds? Weird life so different from what we know that we might not even be capable of recognizing it? Unfortunately, the subject matter lends itself to some fairly wild speculation. Once the author, David Toomey, leaves the realm of carbon biochemistry and ventures into realms, for example, defined by current theoretical physics, there appears to be little to define the limits of speculative life in parallel universes with which we can never interact or even know to exist. Life as a game played on a cosmic scale where Earth's organisms are simply chess pieces? How many aliens can you fit on the head of a pin? This type of speculation is not science and leads nowhere - except, perhaps as fodder for science fiction. It detracts from the valid discussion of life-as-we-know-it's limits. The author would have been better off devoting the latter part of Weird Life to a discussion of the theoretical boundaries of possible alternative biochemistries. Perhaps too daunting a task for the general reader, but more likely to yield useful insights into the nature of this thing we call "life". A Glossary, adequate notes, a bibliography, a few images and an index round out this work. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago