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Far be it from me to accuse Paul Davies of “overthinking the problem”, but let us consider that possibility.
Firstly, on the positive side, we’re all agreed that the bizarre complexity of life only makes sense in the context of evolution. Natural selection has produced a cornucopia of survival and improvement mechanisms.
Now consider this: The bigger the selective advantage of a mutation, the more quickly it will rise to dominance. Something like a “nerve” that can quickly send information (about food or a threat) to remote parts of an organism? Wham! Instant success! And a brain? Whoa!!
Summary so far: Given life, evolution explains the rest.
Paul Davies agonises over the remote probability of life beginning in the first place. I do not, because I already know of the organising power of inert materials. So do many physicists. These materials have different names in different domains, but I call them “substrates” - the right kind of clay, a particular crystalline material, something to anchor one material in a useful pattern while others extend it. One organic material becomes a substrate for the next.
Substrates make pond slime possible, and pond slime makes life possible.
That’s why I think there is, was, or will be life elsewhere in the universe; no transcendent principle is required; however the combined tyrannies of time and distance make it almost certain that in the little time left for us, we will never discover it.
As a casual reader of science books who strives to keep up with current developments I got something out of this but not what I was expecting. The book weaves in and out of well-established theories in biology and physics attempting to bind an information layer over molecular biology to explain some of the astonishing complexity. The 'information is physical' mantra is repeated throughout but without any real attempt at the very obvious question - so where the hell is all this information? If it really is physical and biological activity at the molecular level is responding to a giant network of it there ought to be a detectable imprint. Observations of localised chemical and electrical signalling are the nearest it gets to describing any kind of network. Of course this question has to remain unanswered because nobody has yet come up with any reasoned explanation so my disappointment was largely about the claims made by the publishers (who would have thought it, publishers making exaggerated claims to sell books!). Worth reading for some of the scientific facts and stories drawn in from the history of physics, biology and related studies but overall not particularly supportive of any grand new theory of life.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 27 November 2018
The subtitle states "How hidden webs of information are finally solving the mystery of life". Reading this book it is clear that we are as far from "solving the mystery" as ever, and in fact the mystery is only deepening, making this subtitle a little misleading. Much of the book covers what has long been known and much of the new science Prof Davies relates seems to be going on in his own university, making this aspect somewhat parochial.
Davies is not beyond schoolboy errors - stating that the first satellites were launched in 1958 and that carbon-12 represents only 1% of naturally occurring carbon - which make you doubt the general accuracy of the book as a whole. He regards the fact that modern science grew up in Christendom as responsible for rigid thinking about absolute laws, and that if instead it had grown within a continuation of Greek philosophy it would have been very different; here Davies displays a general lack of understanding about ancient philosophy - where he does explicitly mention the "atomic swerve" of Epicurus he is way off the mark.
3.0 out of 5 starsFascinating topic but a bit inconclusive
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 29 December 2018
This tackles one of the most intriguing questions that we face as human beings: what is it that makes us alive, rather than simply a complex computer processor? And it starts promisingly, incorporating the exciting new research area of information theory to try to explain what exactly the demon in the machine is.
So far so good, but then Davies seems to lose his way a little, meandering a little aimlessly through various research areas in biology, posing lots of questions but coming to few conclusions. For example, he gives a short intro to quantum theory, before indicating that plants use it for energy transfer during photosynthesis. Great, but how does that answer the central question posed by the book? He conjectures that perhaps quantum entanglement is in some way involved in consciousness, but makes this conjecture in loose terms without reviewing much evidence for or against this claim.
3.0 out of 5 starsStarts well but is a bit dry for a non scientist
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 28 December 2018
This book aims to tackle one of the most fundamental questions we can ask - what is life? It starts off in a very engaging way that is accessible and interesting for a non science specialist like myself. But I found that it soon became quite dry and not as interesting to read. He pursues the theme of information and it’s place in answering the fundamental question posed quite well, but I found it more difficult to get into as it went on
Written by an experienced forensic statitician this is a well-informed insight into the use and, often, sadly, misuse of statistics that is generated from the data surrounding us. It gives a good grounding in the correlation vs causation, algorithms, probability and critical thinking that gives the lay reader the tools to assess and appraise the figures shouted at us in the news, on social media, in government decision-making
I thought this book might inspire an appreciation of physics from a biological perspective. Whilst the book is thought provoking, it proved too tall an order I'm afraid, to ignite an interest in physics. Some of the sections of the book I found quite dry, and found myself longing for my usual fare of pure unadulterated biology. It was okay, raised some interesting questions, but not the earth shattering book the publisher blurb makes it out to be. Davies is certainly not the new Darwin! 3 stars
Davies used to write books for laymen, but this time he gets very technical. It is an advanced and well-written book on state-of-the-art science. But to me, it was a disappointment, because I'm moderately interested in technicalities. Most of the book is like this:
"In response to the arrival of a signal from the body of the neuron, the gates open and allow sodium ions to flow from the outside to the inside, thereby reversing the voltage. Next, a different set of ion channels open to allow potassium ions to flow the other way—from the inside to the outside—restoring the original voltage. The polarity reversal typically lasts for only a few thousandths of a second. This transient disturbance triggers the same process in an adjacent section of the axon’s membrane, and that in turn sets off the next section, and so on. The signal thus ripples down the axon towards another neuron." (pp. 196-97).
Davies recounts the history of science, including developments in mathematics, quantum physics, information theory, brain research, etc. But the average hyper-intellectual would already know most of the science history. The book is utterly demanding, and the average person would experience it as tedious. The author's central concept is this:
LIFE = MATTER + INFORMATION
Comparatively, the medieval version is like this:
LIFE = MATTER + SPIRIT
Here, spirit is what God breathed into Adam's nostrils. On this view, we are connected to a divine transcendental mind through a kind of umbilical cord of spirit. Our conscious awareness has an otherworldly origin. This actually provides an explanation of sorts. As I see it, Davies's equation does not. It could provide an explanation for life going on "in the dark", without conscious awareness. But since life goes on "in the light", it has not sufficient explanatory power. It does not help to say that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" and that "consciousness is an emergent property".