News Articles

Book Review - The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza by Suzan Mazur

Published on: March 5, 2015, 12:06 p.m.
Posted by: jacky

 The Origin of Life Circus:  A How To Make Life Extravaganza

Adrian Bejan 
Duke University

      This is an extraordinary, timely book about what author, Suzan Mazur, considers the “greatest story” there is for a journalist to cover: the politics of the investigation into the origin and synthesis of life. Mazur describes the origin of life field as a “Big Top of exquisite conjecture,” where there’s a brilliant clash of opinion but no real experts or benchmarks. Although the fervor of the dozens of scientists interviewed in the book’s largely Q&A format does sometimes resemble a three-ring circus, it pays to walk along the high wire and view the big picture Mazur has painted of an “extravaganza” of scientific visions.

      Photos and drawings of each of the scientists help to move you through the book’s 492 pages, structured in seven parts:  Who Owns the Circus? The Circus Caravan (includes analysis of various origin of life conferences: Princeton, CERN, Texas and Tokyo), the Bottom Up and Top Down tents, Circus Toy Models, Rethinking the Circus, and It’s the People’s Circus (the latter questions the science establishment’s control of science that the public funds).

      The Bottom Up tent highlights various origin of life circus acts: The Metabolists featuring Freeman Dyson and Doron Lancet; The Compartmentalists starring Michael Russell, Elbert Branscomb and Nick Lane (and Bill Martin) vigorously debating alkaline hydrothermal vents; and The Geneticists represented by Jack Szostak and Dimitar Sasselov.  The Top Down tent focuses on robotics – pro and con.  Jaron Lanier, the “father of virtual reality” tells Mazur he thinks the rush for robotics will “break eventually” in Europe, but first in the US.

      One of the most fascinating sections of the book is “Circus Toy Models” where Mazur interviews those scientists involved with efforts to make life in the lab – from Jack Szostak and Matt Powner to Vincent Noireaux and Albert Libchaber to Steen Rasmussen and Norm Packard. Mazur also chats with James Simons (“Impresario Extraordinaire”) whose Simons Foundation is now seriously bankrolling origins research, including protocell development.    

      In Rethinking the Circus, i.e., the origin and evolution of life, Mazur talks with the late Carl Woese, and also with Nigel Goldenfeld – who calls for a consensus on what life is. Pier Luigi Luisi, who thinks we need all new origin of life “mindstorms.” And astrophysicist Piet Hut, who suggests that young scientists should consider a career in origin of life research over say, particle physics, and start organizing origins conferences.  

      Mazur opens the book with a tribute to origins philanthropist Harry Lonsdale who died in November and concludes remembering the late Lynn Margulis and David F. Noble (It’s the People’s Circus) with both Margulis and Noble questioning peer review.  Noble viewed peer review as censorship and thought the system should be scrapped.

      The tectonic plates are rapidly shifting in science. . .  Mazur’s book is also a reminder for me that the origin and evolution of life is a natural phenomenon of physics.  This physics phenomenon calls for its own law of physics.

Adrian Bejan is J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University. He has published 600 papers and 28 books, and is widely known for his work on thermodynamics, costructal laws and evolution in nature.