THE ENERGY OF LIFE

Guy Brown

London, 1999.


Anyone wanting a pop-science account of how organisms are powered will find this book very useful. The most fascinating part of the book for me was the explanation of cellular processes:

"there are four forms of electricity in the cell: electron, proton, phosphate and sodium electricity." (p.97)

Brown explains the huge consumption of our nervous system:

"Roughly half of all the human body's energy use may be related to information processing, although it is often difficult to disentangle the processing of matter, energy and information within the body." (p.160)

Unfortunately, although the factual content is engrossing enough, there are many curious lapses to be found. These include a persistent and very irritating tendency to indulge misleading forms of expression, such as:

"Energy can come from other people. They can be both sources and sinks of energy. Some people seem to radiate enthusiasm, dynamism and vitality, so that their energy seems contagious." (p.259)

I grant that he writes "seems", so that he need not be taken literally, but the first sentence is categorical enough, and can only encourage the common tendency to confuse literal and metaphorical uses of the term, "energy". Earlier in the book, he offers this definition:

"Energy quantifies the capacity for movement or physical change within any particular situation." (p.67)

Brown knows that a malnourished person can't be energized by the mere presence of someone to do anything that she hasn't the resources to do, yet he is strangely reluctant to make such a point clear. This weak approach to the issue could have been improved by reference to, for example, the discussion in J. Allan Hobson's The Dreaming Brain. Suspicions about Brown's sympathies may be further aroused by this bland reference to that notorious fraud, Castenada:

"The writer Carlos Castenada created a modern American myth in the Mexican/Indian sorceror, Don Juan. Don Juan's goal was to increase his own energy level..." (p.260)

Martin Gardner, in Did Adam and Eve Have Navels?, reminds us that,

"Careful investigations found his books riddled with contradictions, outright errors, and rafts of material pilfered from other authors. Don Juan existed only in Carlos's imagination. As sociologist Marcello Truzzi was the first to say, Castenada's books were the greatest science hoax since the Piltdown Man." (op. cit., p.164)

Despite his uneven style, Brown won a Wellcome Trust prize for his book. He should be awarded some other prize for this beauty:

"Playing with death is a dangerous game and inevitably sometimes goes wrong, with fatal consequences." (p.113)


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BIOLOGY



Paul Taylor 2001