Book Review: Weird Life

Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own
Author: David Toomey
W. W. Norton & Company (February 19, 2013)

**Full disclosure: A copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher for evaluation as a possible book for one of the courses I teach with a friend and colleague at my work. I have no conflict of interest.**

Weird Life is an absolutely delightful book! I say this not only because the book is about one of my favorite science topics or just because I happen to co-teach a related course. The theme helps of course, but the book is very enjoyable because it is very well-written too! The author’s writing style is witty and funny. Moreover, it reads like a story; one of the reasons why you keep reading is because you want to know what happens next.

Also, it is very much evident that the author did his homework.  He presents an engaging story combining the question “what is life?” with an exploration of what we know about it and a series of very logical and interesting speculations of what we do not know about it. He even extended this exploration to really weird places like black holes and neutron stars. Let me tell you, it is VERY difficult to integrate chemistry / biochemistry / physiology / ecology / geology / astronomy and physics-cosmology among other topics in a course, let alone in a single popular science book, yet Dr. Toomey succeeded. He aptly summarizes cutting edge research in an engaging way. I especially liked his chapter about weird life and science fiction. As icing on the cake, he mentioned the research of a former colleague of mine on the discovery of ancient bacteria in really old salt crystals.

Also, I confess that any book that mentions Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan has a place in my heart. As if this were not enough, he also mentions Isaac Asimov and Star Trek!

Check and mate.

The list of references is pretty decent too; this is very important, as I am sure that you will certainly like to further explore many of the topics.

Here are some of my favorite sentence/phrases/comparisons in the book (I am not including the page numbers; have fun finding them!):

**“If you were a spore, you might regard astrobiologists as the sum of all fears.”

**“But liquids, the happy medium of mediums…”

**”…statistically speaking anyway, life on Earth might be the one that’s weird.”

**”…the reason mathematics describes the universe so well is that the universe is inherently mathematical.”

There is an awesome analogy that uses juggling as a way of seeing biological life. Moreover, I ABSOLUTELY LOVED the section “An unsettling question”. I also ABSOLUTELY LOVED the very last paragraph of the book. Just do me a favor, don’t jump right to it, you will savor it much more when you have read the book.

I must say that I am kind of a nitpicker though, so I will mention a selection of “nits” of the book; therefore, I am willing to accept any Karma coming my way when I am on the other side of the fence, which I hope is very soon (:-)…

I will use quotation marks (“ “) when I directly state what is said in the book, followed by my comments in bold whenever appropriate. Here we go.

**Page 4 and index: “Alfred Wegener” of continental drift hypothesis fame, was called “Alfred Wegner”.

**Page 22: I had to look up the word “quaffable”, and I am sure that you will too. It was a tad distracting.

**Page 65 text and footnote: “Biological specialties include at least nine…”.

Close enough, but nowadays the boundaries between biological specialties and even between sciences are rather blurred. That said, surprisingly, despite talking about extremophiles and other types of microorganisms, the author did not include microbiology in those specialties.

**In page 171 he said: “…he could later publish it in the journal New Scientist”.

I actually love New Scientist, but this is a magazine, not a scientific journal. It does not publish original research and it is definitively not peer-reviewed.

**Page 182, second footnote: “A subatomic particle like an electron, for instance cannot have a position and speed simultaneously…”.

Not exactly. Any particle has both a position and velocity, we just cannot measure both at the same time.

Other matters:

I found a very strange omission when he talks about the question “Where are they?”. This question was famously stated by Enrico Fermi explicitly to explore the possible reasons why we do not know of other type of life but our own, yet Fermi is not even mentioned anywhere in the book as far as I could tell.

Also, even when the author correctly states that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) started in 1959 with the justly celebrated Morrison-Cocconi paper, in page 145 he says the following about the “Where are they?” Question: “The question, which arose some twenty years after SETI began…”. Sadly, this is incorrect, since Fermi stated the question in the 1940s, almost 20 years before SETI officially began. Maybe this is a typo.

Despite the previous points I must say that this book kept my attention and interest regardless of these minor details. In all truthfulness, when I have seen little things like that in other books, I just put the book aside. The fact that I did not do that this time is a testament about the quality of the book.

I do not want to give too many details away, but I strongly encourage you to read the book; you will not be disappointed.
Picture credit: Norton & Co.

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  1. I’ve enjoyed reading ‘Wierd Life’ too, but close reading reveals quite a few annoying errors of fact which undercut confidence in the at least some of the rest. I would put this down to poor editing. As a biology teacher, I would ask my students to read it, with a contest to see who identified the most errors. For instance, look at the book’s details on DNA replication.

  2. It is somewhat interesting that Fermi is not mentioned by name–I am wondering where your reference to the 1940 quotation came from, as well? I have down-loaded a pdf doc which is seemingly from Los Alamos–it states that famous quotation took place during lunch between four scientists: Edward Teller, Herbert York, Emil Konopinski and Enrico Fermi. If you don’t mind I have included a link to that document:

    Enjoyed reading your review about the book–


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