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The Equations of Life

How Physics Shapes Evolution
Narrated by: Ian Porter
Length: 11 hrs and 42 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (76 ratings)

Regular price: $34.99

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Publisher's Summary

We are all familiar with the popular idea that strange alien life is wildly different from life on Earth. Maybe it's made of silicon! Maybe it has wheels! Or maybe it doesn't. 

In The Equations of Life, biologist Charles S. Cockell makes the forceful argument that the laws of physics narrowly constrain how life can evolve, making evolution's outcomes predictable. If we were to find something very much like a lady bug eating something very much like an aphid on a distant planet, we shouldn't be surprised. The forms of life are guided by a limited set of rules, and, as a result, there is a narrow set of solutions to the challenges of existence. 

A remarkable scientific contribution breathing new life into Darwin's theory of evolution, The Equations of Life makes a radical argument about what life can - and can't - be.

©2018 Charles S. Cockell (P)2018 Dreamscape Media, LLC

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Too many equations, not enough insights

This was a pretty good attempt at explaining the impact of physics and chemistry on life as it evolved on Earth and as it might evolve on other worlds. There were not many new insights for me - we know that carbon-based chemistry is much richer than chemistry based on silicon or other elements. And the physical forces on life are well known. The chapter I enjoyed most was about life on planets with a higher gravity than Earth. I understood that such lifeforms would be shorter and stockier, but had not realized that the higher density of air would make flight possible for many more animals. A wonderful insight.

The rest of the book is rather dry and falters (for the Audible reader) where equations are given. The poor narrator has to explain complicated equations in detail (T sub f divided by pi R squared equals ...). Even if you're familiar with the physics it's hard to visualize what the equations look like. This may be better in the printed version, but why provide equations at all without explaining what they mean and where they come from? The book becomes a textbook and not a very good one. My least favorite college textbooks were the ones that presented complicated equations with no history or background.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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It all makes sense

The physics is pretty simple as is the biology- but Cockell puts them together in a way that just makes sense. I've been in biology for 50 years yet only now did things like "why 20 amino acids?" becomes clear- or at least, likely. The astrobiology is of interest more to him than me but there is still stuff to be learned.

The speaker was exceptional in clarity, phrasing and pace. It would have been perfect except weird pronunciation of several science words like. a priori or cytosine.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Stimulating, entertaining



A fun, thought-provoking review of current thought on the limitations physics may place on evolutionary form. Although some reviewers are very impatient with the equations, I found them overall useful and at times revealing (there's an equation for THAT?? COOL!!).

I was a little disappointed in Cockell's Enlightenment-era aside miscasting geocentrism as insistence on Earth as the center of the universe because of its cosmic importance (the opposite, its low position as the seat of ultimate imperfection, was generally held among the learned of Copernicus' day); and a brief and misleading reference seeming to name the concept of evolution as Darwin's invention rather than his elegant crystallization of the observations and ponderings of many of his contemporaries in addition to his own. And perhaps some readers might have better understood the old belief in [wheat+underwear = biogenesis of mice] if he had briefly mentioned that natural philosophers of that day were only beginning to move away from the ancient Greek belief that all things are unique combinations of air, fire, earth, and water (hence the notion of alchemists, including Copernicus and Newton, that it should be possible to reorder these four elements to change lead to gold). And animals with wheels?? Physics is first and foremost the reason we don't find two-piece organisms beyond single-cells with spinning flagella. I wish he had actually tackled this subject even for a few paragraphs rather than just discussing tumbling tumbleweeds (a ball being completely different from a propeller or a wheel and axle. But these shortcomings aside, the material is overall logical and engaging in presentation, and pretty darned thorough.

The reader has a nicely modulated, lively, interesting voice, but his performance is marred throughout by mispronunciations of common scientific terminology (c'mon, guy, haven't you ever watched NOVA?). Don't these folks look at their material ahead of time and use a dictionary to confirm pronunciation? Still, an engaging and worthwhile book for adults and scientifically precocious young people.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Life is amazing, but has limits.

A fascinating journey to the various barriers that life encounters. For anyone who wants to dive deeper into the world around them, definitely add this one to your reading list. Yes they do read off the equations, but considering the title it comes with the territory. The math ties in very well with many other sciences.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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original, thought provoking well balanced

a logical analysis of basic physical properties applied to the macro requirements and constraints of life. basically argues that at a molecular level Carbon and water-based life with certain common structures such as lipid based cell walls, folded proteins, and proton pump type mechanisms for energy transfer are likely. can't be disproved but at the very least demonstrates the relative abundance of organic chemicals and water in the Galaxy and the relative challenges other substances would have vs C and H2O- based life. maybe slightly repetitive but for the most part a good balance of science and reasoned analysis.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Biological Roots in Physics

A readable explanation of how physics constrains evolution. Don't let the equations scare you away. You may not agree with the author but you will understand his perspective.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful