‘The Equations of Life: The Hidden Rules Shaping Evolution’ by Charles Cockell

Posted on Nov 20, 2018 in Book reviews | 0 comments

Charles Cockell opens this book with a picture of a small, blind bundle of subterranean fluff (a.k.a., a Lesser Mole Rat), with the simple caption P = F / A, and for approximately half the book, no explanation of why. At its core, this is a book of formula of the biological. How do the principles of physics govern all life? What are the mathematical formulae that dictate evolutionary pathways? If we understand these principles, do we then understand why Lesser Mole Rats are the way that they are?

For a popular science book, this book is very brave. In the acknowledgements to ‘A Brief History of Time’, Stephen Hawking recounts his editors request that every mathematical formula be removed from the book, as for every equation the readership would be halved. Famously, this thus leaves only the one formula in this seminal public science physics text. Cockell takes the opposite approach here — this is a text riddled with exotic squiggles and equals signs. The author loves the beauty of formulae, and in the poetic description of how this governs a ladybird’s form (for example) this comes through. This may therefore not be a book for everyone, and in places it is a difficult read. As a sign of the audience that this book targets, it has 60 pages of further notes and references following the main text, and then a detailed index. More of a public science book for scientists, than for the public.

There are chapters of elegance and clarity. For example, the section on how ATP synthase works to produce energy within mitochondria is an elegantly written section that may end up on the reading list for my undergraduate physiology students. Topics between chapters are wide ranging, and sometimes do not appear to link up. It is in the later chapters where the book is most engaging, where the author speculates on the possible forms of extraterrestrial life, how the universal constants of physics must apply, and thus attempting reasonable speculations on forms that we may one day expect to find.

If you want to know how the physics of head impacts applies to ladybird shells, what rules limit the possibility of life elsewhere, why we didn’t evolve to fly, or indeed why the Lesser Mole Rat is well described by P = F / A, then this book has a formula for you. Altogether, this is a fascinating read on the physical principles governing life and therefore what forms we might expect to find elsewhere…

Reviewed by: Brad Elliott, University of Westminster

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