Short works

Books : reviews

Edward Regis, ed.
Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence.
CUP. 1985


Lewis White Beck. Extraterrestrial intelligent life. 1985
Ernst Mayr. The probability of extraterrestrial intelligent life. 1985
David M. Raup. ETI without intelligence. 1985
Michael Ruse. Is rape wrong on Andromeda? An introduction to extraterrestrial evolution, science, and morality. 1985
Nicholas Rescher. Extraterrestrial science. 1985
Marvin L. Minsky. Why intelligent aliens will be intelligible. 1985
Frank J. Tipler. Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist. 1985
Carl Sagan, William I. Newman. The solipsist approach to extraterrestrial intelligence. 1985
Jill Tarter. Searching for extraterrestrials. 1985
Cipher A. Deavours. Extraterrestrial communication: a cryptologic perspective. 1985
Hans Freudenthal. Excerpts from LINCOS: design of a language for cosmic intercourse. 1985
SETI debunked. 1985
Jan Narveson. Martians and morals: how to treat an alien. 1985
Robert Nozick. R.S.V.P. -- a story. 1985

Edward Regis.
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: science slightly over the edge.
Penguin. 1990

rating : 3 : worth reading

the technology of eternal life

Edward Regis.
Bantam. 1995

rating : 3 : worth reading

the people and history of nanotechnology

Edward Regis.
What Is Life?: investigating the nature of life in the age of synthetic biology.
OUP. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 10 June 2009

In 1943 Erwin Schrodinger gave a series of lectures, published as the book What is Life? in 1944. This proved very influential on the development of genetic biology: Crick, Watson, and other prominent biologists claim to have been strongly influenced by it. 50 years on, there was a follow-up, a series of essays discussing its contribution. Now, 65 years on, and the scene is almost unrecognisable. Regis brings us up-to-date, partly based around various synthetic biology approaches to building life from scratch.

There's lots of great historical detail, from the early days of genetics, the discovery of DNA, the discovery of its structure, a review of the 50-year follow-up conference, theories of the origin of life, and some of what's happened recently, including the various 21st century artificial cell projects such as PACE that are beginning to take off.

And here is were the story diverges from Schrodinger's view. There it was about genetics, about reproduction, about replication, being the essence, the defining qualities of life. But Regis' account focuses on metabolism as the key property. After all, "Anyone who felt so inclined could forgo reproduction for their entire lives, but no one could do without metabolism for a moment without extremely serious consequences." There is even a suggestion that metabolism came well before replication in the origin of life: the "Garbage-bag World" model has bags of metabolisms reproducing (but not replicating), and only later having their mechanisms hijacked by RNA and DNA.

pp75-76. In general, metabolism was the process by which an organism maintained itself as a living entity. It did this by bringing in raw materials from outside itself, reassorting their chemical constituents, breaking down certain molecular structures and building up others from their component molecules, thereby converting the foodstuffs into substances required for the organism's continued existence, as well as for its energy supplies. Your metabolism was responsible for the fact that you could eat breakfast, wait awhile for it to "digest," and then go out and jog five miles.
    That metabolism could in fact be the biological essence of life was plausible in the sense that the body's motion and activity, its incessant molecular reshuffling, all of its chemical getting and spending, depended upon the conversion of nutrients into energy. When metabolism stopped, death ensued, complete with rigor mortis.
    Metabolism, furthermore, appeared to perform on a daily basis, and automatically, the extraordinary feat of transforming the nonliving into the living. By and large, people ate dead things (such as cooked plants, fish, fowl, and meat), which their metabolic systems then converted into integral and indispensable parts of the living organism. Somewhere in the middle-somehow-chemistry became biology.
    Metabolism also explained how it was that living things appeared to violate the second law of thermodynamics, but didn't. As Schrodinger argued, their metabolic systems merely withdrew orderly energy out of the environment and put disorder, or entropy, back into it.
    But the story of how an organism's metabolism managed to do all these things at once was a tale of some complexity.

So there's lots of good, thought-provoking stuff here.

I've included the quotation above for two reasons; firstly, because it highlights to importance given to metabolism; but secondly, for the fact that the choice of tense makes me grind my teeth when I read it. Apart from the beginning and ending chapters, talking of present-day events, all the intermediate "historical" chapters have everything in the past tense, including things that are not historical, past, over, but are still the case. When I read "metabolism was the process by which an organism maintained itself", I immediately think "so what is the process now?"; when I read "Your metabolism was responsible for the fact..." I immediately think "so what is responsible now?"; and so on, and so on. I am continually having to think "oh, he doesn't mean it's no longer true; it's just his idiosyncratic choice of tense." This is published by Oxford University Press: what was the editor thinking?

Nevertheless, worth reading, even if through gritted teeth.