The Loom

The New York Sun has a positive review of Microcosm today, and part of me just wants to point you in its direction, let you read about the book’s “ecstatically reflective moments,” and leave it at that. But there’s one puzzling passage that makes me wonder if some printer bent on mischief swapped my page 31 for one that I didn’t write. The reviewer observes, correctly, that much of the book is dedicated to drawing parallels between E. coli and us–and all living things as well. While he thinks this works for the most part, he thinks sometimes the comparison is “perhaps too glib.”

Mr. Zimmer makes much of the stationary phase E. coli enter during periods when, having surrounded themselves with their own waste, they run out of food. Having befouled their environment and denuded it of its resources, the bacteria quit reproducing, crumple their reproductive apparatus into a compact and rugged crystalline structure, and hibernate — only to unfold and resume reproducing once lean times pass. At this, Mr. Zimmer remarks ominously, “we humans never get such a second chance.” It’s a fair shot at anti-greens, except that it’s not clear that humans won’t be able to persist through similarly difficult conditions, hunkering down while we figure out how to deal with the mess we’ve made.

I simply can’t see how anyone could take that passage as an attack on anti-environmentalists. The “second chance” that we humans don’t get is a second chance on life, not a second chance to reduce carbon emissions. And that comparison, the one that is actually on the page, isn’t glib at all. (Anyone who has already readthe book can tell me if I’m wrong–just flip to page 31.)

Trust me, I’ve made my share of slams against ignorant attacks on environmental science. And I have serious doubts that we can just slip off to some bio-dome to figure out how to undo deforestation, overfishing, and the biogeochemical overdrive we’ve sent the planet into. But I don’t like being accused of a silly analogy I never made.

Okay. I’ll be quiet now.

Comments

  1. #1 clear as mud
    May 14, 2008

    Isn’t the NY Sun a conservative paper?

    Regardless, I haven’t read the book yet (I WILL I promise) but I can only assume the passage had to do with a deep stationary phase or possibly sporulation (which many bugs, but not E.coli I thought, do).

    Sounds to me ike a conservative hack who sees “liberal” boogie-men everywhere. He can’t realize that reporting a biological truth – that many an individual bacteria can, when faced with starvation, actually survive to live another day, while individual humans, when faced with starvation, have only one outcome – death.

    It’s simple. But if he want’s to assume reporting a biological truth is somehow an attack on his conservative principles, that pretty much puts him in the Creationist-class of people.

  2. #2 Aaron Golas
    May 14, 2008

    I’m with you on this one. The comparison you make in the book isn’t about our external environment at all; it’s about our inability to recover from the same kind of internal breakdown that our cells suffer, including buildup of faulty proteins and cannibalization of ribosomes. This state may be prompted by external factors in the case of E. coli, but for us it’s age.

    “The threats faced by a starving E. coli are much like the ones our own cells face as we get old.” (emphasis mine) Pretty unambiguous, I thought.

    (For the record, I feel weird quoting you to you. :-P)

  3. #3 Mike
    May 14, 2008

    I just read that section of the book 2 days ago, and what you wrote was perfectly clear. I don’t know how The Sun came up with their interpretation of that passage – I agree, it does not describe what you wrote.

  4. #4 Edman
    May 14, 2008

    I second what’s been said here. The whole section was about aging and taking a closer look at e. coli’s “immortality”.

    I don’t see how he could have taken it that way, but some people see things through a filter of whatever they are obsessed with. Perhaps this guy has environmental issues?

  5. #5 Stephen
    May 14, 2008

    It looks like you got some reviewer to do some thinking. It may not have been what you had in mind. But when someone takes one of my ideas and runs with it, it’s their idea, and i’m happy to have been an inspiration. Don’t be pissed off that you succeded. His problem is that he thinks it’s your idea. That’s his confusion, not yours.

    English is incredibly ambigous. “COP arrests man with a gun.” Did the COP have a gun, or the man? Abiguity in six words. That’s probably not the lower limit.

  6. #6 Michelle
    May 14, 2008

    Well, book reviewers always have to point out *something* they don’t like about the book, lest they look biased. Look at it this way: if he essentially had to make up a problem with the book, that must mean it’s perfect and there’s nothing to truly criticize! ;)

  7. #7 Rhonda
    May 14, 2008

    I’m a scientist and a conservative, and every conservative thinking person I know around the country reads The New York Sun online. That was not just a “positive” review–it was a gorgeous lapel-grabber. I went out to Borders and bought your book the next day. What a great book. Thanks to the Sun for making it known; I gave up on the TBR over a year ago. I don’t get the snide liberal resentment from readers of your blog–if they’re so smart, why don’t they write their own reviews? Nor do I think your quibble is worth following up. It hardly puts a dent in the overall bacterial love affair! No more kvetching.

  8. #8 clear as mud
    May 14, 2008

    Snide resentment?

    The guy took a statement of pure fact and acted like it was a political diatribe. Is that not true?

    Or did you mean *conservative* resentment of the reviewer?

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    May 14, 2008

    Michelle (#6):

    Well, book reviewers always have to point out *something* they don’t like about the book, lest they look biased.

    How true. . . how true.

  10. #10 Carl Zimmer
    May 14, 2008

    Rhonda [#8]: I am very glad that you bought a copy, and I’m grateful that the NY Sun review motivated you. I hope it engrosses you, delights you, and diverts you. However, the fact remains that the reviewer spent a chunk of his review taking issue with something I never actually wrote. That bugs me. And blogs are for the things that bug us.

  11. #11 Dharma Hunter
    May 15, 2008

    As an E. coli researcher (20 yrs +), I am very pleasantly surprised that someone has written a book about my favorite organism.

    Kudos, Carl.

    I hope that you use the Monod quote, “What’s true of E. coli is true of the elephant.” While a bit of hyperbole, it captures the quest at that time to understand the biochemistry of life. From what I have heard, the quote was a play upon words/naming…substitute “E. lephant.”

    Unfortunately, funding for the study of E. coli and other model microorganisms has decreased significantly in recent years (search “An Open Letter to Elias Zerhouni”). As many of the pioneers in this field retire, there are fewer and fewer to replace them. I hope this book will spur new interest in bacterial research. It will take a new kind of scientist though – as comfortable with mathematical analysis as with molecular biology. Just peruse Nature Systems Biology (its free!) and one can see that E. coli still plays a major role in understanding basic biology.

    We are only scratching the surface of what E. coli can deliver to us.

    Thanks again for writing this book. I look forward to reading it.

    DH

    PS Reviewers are reviewers. Sometimes I wonder whether the reviewers read the same manuscript.

  12. #12 Brian Schmidt
    May 16, 2008

    Stephen at #5 has got it right – a pretty minor issue.

  13. #13 Jim Hu
    May 16, 2008

    Some of the long term viability of E. coli cultures (depending on what they starve in) involves cryptic growth – subpopulations of mutants growing on the dead carcasses of their relatives and taking over, only to be supplanted by another round of mutants. Steve Finkel at USC has done some nice work on this phenomenon, which he and Roberto Kolter (Steve’s postdoc mentor at Harvard Med) call GASP (Growth Advantage in Stationary Phase).

    This may or may not be a good model for humans making it through food shortages…

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