What is life? Why do creatures cooperate? Why do living things die? Carl Zimmer, a leading writer on evolution, finds answers to these and other big questions in the most humble of places — the common gut microbe, Escherichia coli. In Zimmer’s hands, E. coli becomes a window on to the basic properties of life and the ways that complex living systems can arise and change.
Zimmer weaves a narrative through the main principles of evolution, genetics and ageing, with stories of the people who made major breakthroughs along the way. His simple way of explaining complex ideas and his fast storytelling pace make for delightful reading. Each chapter contains ‘wow’ moments about bacteria and the joys and travails of the scientists who study them. The result is a scientific detective story that left me with a new appreciation of the trillions of microbes that live on and inside my body.
The editors also asked me for a suggestion, and I offered up Newton and the Counterfeiter by Tom Levenson. The rest of the list looks good too, although I will probably have to abstain. I am determined to finish War and Peace, a few pages at a time if necessary, in this lifetime. Or maybe the next.