Friday, February 12, 2010

"Genesis" by Bob Hazen

Book month continues...

Over the Snowpocalypse, I read Bob Hazen's book Genesis: the Scientific Quest for Life's Origin. Hazen is a celebrated and charismatic scientist whose primary gig is at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, though he is also the Clarence Robinson professor of geology at George Mason University. (He's also the guy who got some time in the spotlight the year before last with his ideas about mineral evolution and one of the team manning the Carnegie's new initiative the Deep Carbon Observatory.)

The book is an insider's account of what insights science has gained into how life began on our planet. Spanning several decades and labs on three continents, the story is ultimately one of chemistry, and of people. The chemistry is the knowledge part of it: how did life's fundamentals (metabolism and genetics) come to be? We know a lot about how to put together polymers from smaller (and presumably abundant) monomers, and we know a lot about the rawest forms of both metabolism and the passing on of genetic information. But there is a gap, progressively narrowing through dogged science, which we don't understand. The book is very much about famililarlizing the lay-reader with the details, and limits, of our understanding.

It is also very much a book about scientists, the people who get science done. This is probably the more interesting part, at least to me. Some of the stories Hazen tells are insightful and endearing, as you get to observe major breakthroughs through the biographies of those who made them happen. There are also bizarre twists, like a debate between Bill Shopf and Martin Brazier in 20002 about the ALH 84001 meteorite, the one purported to hold fossilized Martian microbes. I'll leave the details for the reader to discover, but it sounds like a very uncomfortable scene. Also on the 'people' angle, I found it interesting to hear when Hazen was pursuing an interesting new angle, and was asked politely to stop by a colleague because the colleague had promised someone else the chance to test that particular hypothesis. Navigating the politics of research is something I don't have a lot of experience in, and so I found this intriguing. Similarly, the story of Nick Platts and the PAH World hypothesis was a neat case study in how science can work -- albeit more dramatic and "Eureka!"-ish than the usual lab monotony. Finally, I really enjoyed the flavor provided by Hazen's anecdotes about life around the Carnegie: beers, volleyball, crowded lab space, small stories about the people who I see at GSW.

Hazen's own contributions to the field are mainly centered on the high-pressure, high-temperature lab experiements he does in the "bomb" at the Carnegie, and his expertise on minerals as a geologist. He does element mapping of fossils, and experiments to see if mineral surface chirality can 'select' for 'left-handed' or 'right-handed' amino acids. This is definitely not the centerpiece of the book though: to his credit, Hazen shows himself to be but one scientist in an active, vibrant field. His contributions are presented with equal weight as compared to his peers' and colleagues' contributions. I think it's well balanced that way. He also pulls no punches when it comes to odd, demeaning, or outright political behavior on the part of his peers, and I can imagine that some of them would have issues with the book on that count. It seems to me that he tells it like it is. Reviews on Amazon are mixed, but mostly positive, with the main criticism apparently that this is a personal account of how the science is getting done, and not a textbook. To which I would say: if you expect a personal account, then you won't be disappointed.

Overall, I would give it 4 out of 5 possible stars.

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Anonymous Jules said...

Dr Hazen also has an excellent CD/DVD course titled "The Origins of Life" from the Teaching Co. located in Chantilly,VA and another "The Joy of Science". He does a wonderful job of explaining in a coherent way the principles of science to the layperson.

February 12, 2010 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Jules said...

By the way(I get no commissions from this!) if anybody is interested in buying one of these courses, many of them are often marked down dramactically to less than $50-70.00

I have been listening or viewing their courses for over 10 years and consider their products outstanding.

I am listening to a 48 part course while commuting on "Big History,The Big Bang, Life on Earth and the Rise of Humanity" By Professor David Christian and consider it one of the best courses of the many I have enjoyed from the Teaching Co.

February 12, 2010 4:10 PM  
Anonymous George D Turner said...

Your review led me to think you might enjoy Menard's "Ocean of Truth"-subtitle A Personal History of Global Tectonics. It's nearly 20 years old now, but still available. It was the last thing Menard did before succumbing to cancer.

You are spot on about Shubin and Bjornerud. Keep up the good work!

February 13, 2010 12:10 AM  
Blogger Callan Bentley said...

Thanks Jules and George, for the recommendations!

February 13, 2010 6:33 AM  

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