The ScienceBlogs Book Club launched earlier this month with Carl Zimmer’s new book, Microcosm. Zimmer is a widely prolific science writer whose articles appear regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic and other publications; he also maintains a blog here on ScienceBlogs, The Loom, on which he muses about recent discoveries in life science. Microcosm is his sixth book. It is an intimate portrait of the E. coli bacteria, a familiar and yet widely misunderstood organism with limitless potential to reveal the secrets of life.
For it’s inauguration, the ScienceBlogs Book Club invited evolutionary biologist (and fellow blogger) John Dennehy, science writer Jessica Snyder Sachs, and ScienceBlogs’ own PZ Myers to share their opinions of Microcosm and discuss with Carl Zimmer some of the big (and microscopic) issues raised.
All three reviewers had high praise for the book in their initial posts. Dennehy describes watching E. coli in his lab as it reacted to infection by a virus:
[The] E. coli swelled up like a beach ball (well microscopic beach ball) and popped. It’s remarkable to behold, but the drama of what was happening never fully struck me until I read Zimmer’s passages.
Snyder Sachs was struck by the book’s literary grace:
I think for many of us, what makes science writing take flight are these wonderfully unexpected yet perfect comparisons that convey understanding along with a flash of sensory fireworks. For instance, Carl describes a (eukaryotic) cell’s stained chromosomes as looking like “crumpled striped socks.” Perfect!
And Myers, true to form, injected a bit of cephalopod into his review:
I’ll take the E. coli story for now, until we have a comparable level of information about squid. I hope Carl will write that book, too.
In subsequent posts, Zimmer, Dennehy, Snyder Sachs and Myers debated whether viruses are living (Dennehy: yes, Snyder Sachs: no, Zimmer: not exactly, but…) and analyzed the ethical quandaries involved in genetic engineering.
Does tinkering with E. coli and human DNA compromise the ‘dignity’ of either species (and do we care about the dignity of bacteria?)? Is it any different from the horizontal gene transfer bacteria have been performing for billions of years? Do the potential benefits of genetically modified bugs outweigh the risks?
For our bloggers’ opinions, you’ll have to go to the Book Club itself.