Life's Edge

The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

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Pub Date 19 Aug 2021 | Archive Date 19 Aug 2021

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Description

This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science. And it is bookended with the ultimate question: How do we define the thing that defines us? - Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Gene

We all assume we know what life is, but the more scientists learn about the living world – from protocells to brains, from zygotes to pandemic viruses – the harder they find it is to locate the edges of life, where it begins and ends. What exactly does it mean to be alive? Is a virus alive? Is a foetus?


Carl Zimmer investigates one of the biggest questions of all: What is life? The answer seems obvious until you try to seriously answer it. Is the apple sitting on your kitchen counter alive, or is only the apple tree it came from deserving of the word? If we can’t answer that question here on earth, how will we know when and if we discover alien life on other worlds? The question hangs over some of society’s most charged conflicts – whether a fertilized egg is a living person, for example, and when we ought to declare a person legally dead.

Life’s Edge is an utterly fascinating investigation by one of the most celebrated science writers of our time. Zimmer journeys through the strange experiments that have attempted to recreate life. Literally hundreds of definitions of what that should look like now exist, but none has yet emerged as an obvious winner. Lists of what living things have in common do not add up to a theory of life. It’s never clear why some items on the list are essential and others not. Coronaviruses have altered the course of history, and yet many scientists maintain they are not alive. Chemists are creating droplets that can swarm, sense their environment, and multiply. Have they made life in the lab?

Whether he is handling pythons in Alabama or searching for hibernating bats in the Adirondacks, Zimmer revels in astounding examples of life at its most bizarre. He tries his own hand at evolving life in a test tube with unnerving results. Charting the obsession with Dr Frankenstein’s monster and how Coleridge came to believe the whole universe was alive, Zimmer leads us all the way into the labs and minds of researchers working on engineering life from the ground up.

This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science. And it is bookended with the ultimate question: How do we...


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Zimmer sprinkles his book with stories that both dazzle and edify the reader . . . inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory experiments to life. This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself'' -- Siddhartha Mukherjee, New York Times

Carl Zimmer is one of the best science writers we have today.’ -- Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

‘Carl Zimmer shows what a great suspense novel science can be. Life’s Edge is a timely exploration in an age when modern Dr. Frankensteins are hard at work, but Zimmer’s artful, vivid, irresistible writing transcends the moment in these twisting chapters of intellectual revelation. Prepare to be enthralled.’ -- Jennifer Doudna, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2020

Zimmer sprinkles his book with stories that both dazzle and edify the reader . . . inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory...


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Featured Reviews

What is life? A question I think most are fascinated by, as it seems like such a simple, straightforward question but when it comes to answering it, the response comes out a bit garbled. Even from the most eminent and experienced scientists, the definition for ‘what is life’ is a difficult one. This book was beyond absolutely fantastic at arming the reader with all sorts of research, history, examples, encounters with scientists and researchers and details of all things life-y. It makes you realise what an intricate and complex question it is, but provides you with the material to apply it to the original question at hand - or helping you to realise why it might not be such a great idea after all. It’s written spectacularly (a similar trait across all of the authors books I’ve found) and is perfect for the scientist and non scientist alike. I actually learnt so much from this book (even having touched upon this topic before and tackled a definition during my studies) and there was so much more to learn. From the false starts to trying to define how life originates to current and ongoing research which was so interesting to read. This is a book I’d happily have on my shelf and want to revisit again in the future. It was a really enjoyable and informative read, entertaining from the authors writing style and one that the pages whittled down into nothing in no time. This book definitely got me thinking, in terms of at what point does life begin? The potentials of how, it’s origins and our journeys of scientific and philosophical discovery about life. The field of astrobiology is also an incredibly interesting one, and I also really enjoyed hearing from the different scientists in different fields attempting to tackle the age old question about life. This book really got my brain firing and I really really enjoyed reading it!

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Is a coronavirus alive? What does it mean to be alive exactly? Amazingly, this is something scientists find hard to agree on an according to author Carl Zimmer, where “the beams of their scientific flashlights are bright but only because they are narrow.” In ‘Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive’ this is exactly what Carl Zimmer explores. Made up up fascinating experiments going on in science, opening with the mind blowing work being done with ‘organoids’ taken from brain tissue, that when grown can create a matching signal of its own in response to an incoming signal. What is it to be alive indeed? An exploration into life’s edge and “the foggy borderland between living and the not-living.” (Twitter) Is a coronavirus alive? What does to be ‘alive’ mean? In ‘Life’s Edge’, @carlzimmer explores fascinating experiments in “the foggy borderland between living and the not-living.” Out 19th Sept. @panmacmillan

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