A brilliant introduction to the chemistry of life.
In this distinguished as well as highly lucid guide to the dynamics of modern biology, Isaac Asimov deftly explores the most recent discoveries in this constantly surprising field of inquiry.
In the first part, he explains the mechanics of the inanimate world, the significance of energy, work, motion, heat, and chemical reaction. He then uses these concepts in the second half to analyze and explain the latest discoveries in the study of enzymes, amino acids, proteins and the very processes which constitute life itself. In short, Dr. Asimov’s keen examination of biology’s current desire to isolate and control the very basis of life—the significance of which promises to revolutionize life itself—becomes a fascinating as well as informative excursion.
This is, I think, one of Asimov’s very best science books. It also happens that it’s one of the earliest I bought and read—as evidence for which I note the fact that my 400 page paperback copy only cost me $1.25. But that’s an aside--
The book is aimed at a rather more adult audience than most of Asimov’s non-fiction up to this point, but it is still rather broad in scope. The ultimate goal of the book is to try to define life in terms of its use of energy and explain how that energy use takes place. As a result, we are introduced to broad amounts of physics, physical chemistry, and biochemistry.
This is one of Asimov’s few non-fiction books where he really gets into the nuts-and-bolts of science. Equations and chemical diagrams abound, and yet the overall narrative remains clear and lucid. This alone is one of the main reasons to recommend the book, since Asimov rarely writes a book on this level and it provides a far more detailed introduction to the subject at hand than is usually the case. (I think this is why I like it so much.)
Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to determine how well or badly it has aged over the thirty years since it was written. I cannot but think that many of the unsolved mysteries the book is forced to leave dangling have been solved over the course of the decades. Unfortunately, however, since Asimov himself never returned to the topic in such detail I cannot evaluate it against his later writings and this is not a subject which I know much of independently of Asimov. Without a doubt, the basic facts which Asimov presents are still valid (unless somebody has thrown out the Krebs cycle when I wasn’t looking), but one does not know how much more there is to be said now that wasn’t there in the early 1960’s.