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The many wonders of life

So Simple a Beginning: How Four Physical Principles Shape Our Living World By Raghuveer Parthasarathy; Published by Princeton University Press; 336 pages; $35

Raghuveer Parthasarathy's book has as much thought-provoking material for the practising scientist as it does for the lay reader.

I have long read and enjoyed Raghuveer Parthasarathy's blog, The Eighteenth Elephant, in which he combines delightful illustrations with discussions on a range of topics related to biophysics, education and the scientific enterprise. Parthasarathy brings many of the stylistic elements from the blog to his book, So Simple a Beginning, as he takes, with considerable deftness, one of the biggest elephants in the room head-on - the question of how life works.

The book is a narrative of the coming together of physics and biology and is peppered with many apt metaphors and stories while drawing seamless connections to the latest scientific research. Crisply written in Parthasarathy's inimitable style, it leads the reader with joyful ease from the well-established aspects of biology to its more murky waters and from fundamental aspects to the technological.

Questions about what life is and how it operates have long blurred the lines between the disciplines of physics and biology (traditionally, the sciences of the inanimate and the animate, respectively). A few noteworthy examples: Galileo made simple physical arguments to show that structural constraints limit the size of living organisms; D'Arcy Thompson's treatise On Growth and Form brought to bear the role of physical laws and mechanics in determining organismal shape and form; Erwin Schrödinger's classic What is Life?, among other things, laid a central role for non-equilibrium statistical mechanics in describing living processes and famously pre-empted the "aperiodic" nature of information storage in DNA.

To draw another elephant metaphor, like the many blind men trying to describe an elephant, each of these efforts has provided unique vistas into the questions of what life is, how it operates and is organised. It serves well to periodically take stock and try to distil a coherent view from such multiple viewpoints; the book is one such attempt.

On the surface, So Simple a Beginning is a 'popular' science book written for a broad audience about how physics underpins the workings of living things and provides not only concepts but also technological advances to understand living systems. I say 'on the surface' because this book has as much thought-provoking material for the practising scientist as it does to elaborate on the subject of biophysics to the lay reader.


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