Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A World From Dust (Plus): Introducing a Virtual Appendix

I have a special arrival to announce: I have written a book, and it should be on the shelves in about six months! The book is titled A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life.

A World From Dust is a popular science book about the chemical sequence behind the evolution of creation.

It's about how geology, biology, and chemistry worked together over billions of years, providing a hidden order under the random flow of genes and lava and water.

It's about the chemical job that each element takes up in life, and how that job is predictable from its place on the periodic table.

It can be told as the story of many elements: how iron and sulfur gave a spark of life; how manganese was a key for oxygen; and how copper and zinc formed the basis for your immune system and growth patterns.

It can be told as the story of one element: the story of how oxygen was hidden from life, then killed life, then gave new energy and new shapes for life to become more complex than before.

It's also about how, if we rewound and replayed the "tape of life", what we would "hear" in evolution would be much the same the second time around. It's about how, at certain levels, life is predictable and ordered -- and at other levels, it's not.

To use big words, it's about chemistry, convergence, and contingency. To use little words (that are probably better), it's about fate and free will.

Just this morning, Pixar released the first teaser for The Good Dinosaur, which asks "What would have happened if the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs never hit the Earth?" Pixar's answer is that dinosaurs and humans would coexist. It's a nice premise for a movie but it's about as realistic as The Lord of the Rings (not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that, since Tolkien himself shows up three times in the book). I think, if the asteroid did anything, evidence says it accelerated evolution and was ultimately creative as well as destructive. But that's another argument for another post, probably after the movie comes out ... right about when the book is published? We'll see.

A World From Dust engages in argument with several scientists and connects their ideas. For example, the "tape of life" reference above tags Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life as a sparring partner. Readers of this blog will also recognize the late RJP Williams, and possibly Simon Conway Morris, Eric Chaisson, Adrian Bejan, Robert Hazen, and Stuart Kauffman, all of whom have been reviewed in the blog's book reviews.

To that end, even in the week since I've emailed the manuscript to the publisher (Oxford University Press), I've found several papers that have to do with the central argument of the book, whether supporting its premise or challenging certain points. What's an author to do when it takes half a year to publish a book but science keeps moving at the same clip as ever?

That's where this blog comes in. I will blog about these new papers as they come in, and talk about how they fit with the argument of A World From Dust. This will be, in general, more technical than the book itself (which is written for a more general reader), but it will be a good resource for those who read the book and want to know more. And it will allow for back-and-forth discussion in the comments. These are big questions, and the point is to hash them out, not to come to an absolute and universal conclusion.

A few papers are lined up and I hope to post a couple times a week. I'll also post a few, ahem, reminders about how you can buy the book when it hits the streets. This blog will provide another layer for detail and discussion both before and after the book is on the shelves.

The best thing about this is that I don't know what's coming. I've been writing the book for a year now, and in that time some points have been both challenged and supported by new papers. That roller-coaster should continue, in public, here. That's one of the great joys of science and one of the reasons I'm a scientist. It will be recorded here for the curious and the questioning, so watch this space.

For the rest of the series, click on the tag A World From Dust, or start at one of the following posts:
Biology: "This is Water, and the Answer is 20"
Biochemistry: "How Oxygen Stress Steers a Protein"

1 comment:

unkleE said...

I was never very good at chemistry at school and uni, though I understood the periodic table better than organic chemistry. But I think it may have been taught badly. So perhaps your book will achieve what has eluded chemistry teachers in the long distant past, and awaken my interest and make me like chemistry! I look forward to it.