In recent weeks I have become (once again) very interested in exploring the notion and possibilities of “life” described in terms of energy, complexity, physics and sustainability. I remember reading many years ago The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. It presented for me a compelling and alternative view to biology and life science than I had previously been exposed to in my formal schooling. I followed The Tao of Physics by reading A Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, and The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture. These books remain some of the most influential books for me to this day.
Along with Capra I recall reading much about Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, who focused on dissipative structures, complexity and chaos theory, exploring the ties that bind physics and biology together.
I recall meeting Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan sometime around 1997 or so while a graduate student at Oregon State University. She and Dorian (actually her son by Carl Sagan) had just published What is Life? I still have that coffee-table sized book around somewhere. As a person, I recall that she exerted a tremendous force of will, a determination and intensity that impressed me. I found What is Life? to be thought provoking but I always felt less than satisfied, as if it were incomplete. It certainly raised more questions for me than it answered, and so it had great value to me.
Today I am reading Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species by Margulis and Sagan. Margulis, as some may remember, crafted today’s endosymbiotic theory, for which she was initially abused but ultimately acclaimed. Before her untimely death in 2011 she championed the “serial endosymbiotic theory” as a primary driver in the evolution of genomes.
I am also currently reading The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll, a captivating read on physics, energy, entropy and the origins of life. As I read it, I sense many connections between Carroll’s narrative and my prior learning and knowledge. Not just reinforcing – challenging and forcing to the surface more questions … always more questions.
On my daily commute to and from Portland I am listening to the audiobook version of a book written by Nick Lane entitled: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. I find myself rewinding constantly to make sure I heard and integrate the entire narrative. It is that good. Compelling.
I suppose my reinvestment of interest in these related topics came about when I unexpectedly had to teach an introductory undergraduate course in Astronomy at the college where I work. Being more of a geologist and microbiologist than astronomer, the effective topic of the course quickly became “Astrobiology” or the search of extraterrestrial life.
If you want to know about a topic, whether it be in science or history, politics or psychology … no matter what the domain of knowledge you are at the moment interested in, you must read voraciously all that you can. You cannot learn the real essence of the topic by reading a single book, or article, or blog post, or social media meme. You must consume as much on the topic as you can, experience different perspectives from various time periods, see the topic through a diversity of data and interpretations. You must approach your topic from unexpected directions, reading associated narratives on different, but somehow linked, topics. All knowledge ultimately is a narrative. To make the narrative you carry forward robust, make it your own.
Sometimes the inspiration to revisit past studies, to open new doors to expanded investigation, and to once again feel that compelling, irresistible need to learn not just new stuff, but to push and shove the structural framework of one’s own built-up knowledge base around a bit just to be sure the cobwebs don’t take over, comes unpredictably from unlikely and unsought and mostly serendipitous situations. To these situations I say welcome, and thank you.
The Tao of Physics | Fritjof Capra | Shambhala; 5th edition (September 15, 2010) | 978-1590308356
A Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision | Fritjof Capra | Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (June 9, 2014) | 978-1107011366
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems | Fritjof Capra | Anchor; 8/16/97 edition (September 15, 1997)
The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture | Fritjof Capra |Bantam; Reissue edition (August 1, 1984) | 978-0553345728
What is Life? | Lynn Margulis & Dorian Sagan | University of California Press; New Ed edition (August 31, 2000) | 978-0520220218
Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species | Lynn Margulis & Dorian Sagan | Basic Books 2002 | 0465043925
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself | Sean Carroll | Dutton (May 10, 2016) | 978-0525954828
The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life | Nick Lane | W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 21, 2016) | 978-0393352979