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Microcosm (thoughts)

March 11, 2010

I love bookish coincidences, don’t you? Last week, when I was browsing my library’s nonfiction shelves, Carl Zimmer’s Microcosm: E.Coli and the New Science of Life caught my eye, and I brought it home to be part of my Science Book Challenge pile. The next day, Ana reviewed a different Zimmer book (with a considerably less-awesome cover) and had lots of good things to say about it. So of course, I picked up Microcosm as soon as I had a gap in my reading rotation*!

And you know what? Microcosm delighted me. It reminded me of why I adore pop science nonfiction books, and it made me hope that Zimmer has an extensive backlist*. I’ve noticed that many of my favourite nonfiction writers focus on a small, specific theme, and then connect it to larger issues. In Microcosm, Zimmer looks at the long-standing relationship between scientists and E. coli (the most studied species other than humans) and the lessons learned about evolution, adaptation, cellular structure, and more. And he does it all in a way that makes everything fascinating!

One of my favourite aspects of the book is that Zimmer unfolds some species-centric assumptions most people have about science. For example, that eukaryotic cells (the kinds with nuclei, which we see in animals and plants but not in bacteria) are more complex. I would say that Zimmer humanises bacteria, but that implies an anthropomorphism that isn’t there. Instead, he puts the lives and experiences of bacteria in a language that intuitively makes sense to people. I’m sure that this was a challenging task, but he makes it look effortless!

Much of this book is about how E. coli studies have helped scientists discover much of what we know about essential biology topics like DNAand adaptation. Since E. coli reproduces so quickly, it’s a natural for studies of adaptation, and Zimmer walks us through these experiments in a way that made me feel like I was watching a sporting event! There’s a brief focus on creationism, since apparently one aspect of E. coli’s structure is considered a poster child for that, and Zimmer does a nice job of going through exactly how such a structure could result from natural adaptation, as well as discussing a court case that will bring a smile to the face of everyone who believes it’s ridiculous to teach creationism in public school*.

Hmm….I’m not sure that I’m expressing myself all that well. But Microcosm is pop science at its best: engaging without being condescending, full of wonder without being mystical, intelligent without being dense. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of your current lack of interest in E. coli (before this book, I certainly wouldn’t have thought it a subject interesting enough to sustain even a chapter). I shall definitely be reading more of Zimmer in the near future! I know of no better way to convince you to read the book than to share with one a sample of the writing, so that’s how I’m ending this review:

Life had taken hold. If I had microscopes for eyes, I could have watched the hundreds of E. Coli Morales had given me as they wandered, fed, and grew. Each one is shaped like a microscopic submarine, enshrouded by fatty, sugary membranes. It trails propeller-like tails that spin hundreds of times a second. It is packed with tens of millions of molecules, jostling and cooperating to make the microbe grow. Once it grows long enough, it splits cleanly in two. Splitting again and again, it gives rise to a miniature dynasty. When these dynasties grow large enough, they become visible as golden spots. And together the spots reveal the path of Morales’s living signature.


Footnote One: Now, every once in awhile I make an exception, but I generally follow a rotation. I’ve always got four hard-copy books going, two fiction and two nonfiction, and I read about 50 pages of each (depending on chapter placement, this actually varies from 40-60) before moving on to the next, in a fiction/nonfiction alternating order. I also have a fiction audiobook going, which I listen to while I’m doing anything that requires my hands and not my brain, as well as before I fall asleep (best cure for my insomnia I’ve ever found). Um, I think by now you all know I’m detail-oriented!

Footnote Two: He does!

Footnote Three: Which would include me! If for some reason, reading my blog hasn’t made that clear.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2010 5:39 am

    Can’t say I’ve read much pop science but I am certainly intrigued! The passage you’ve included above is wonderfully approachable. Not sure that E.coli is my area of interest, but am encouraged not to discriminate against the genre anymore and already want to search out one of Zimmer’s books on evolution (there appear to be several).

    • March 12, 2010 12:12 pm

      lol-E. coli isn’t an area of interest of mine either. But Zimmer’s writing is SO good.

  2. March 11, 2010 6:25 am

    I love pop science books. I’m definitely going to pick this one up (and then maybe check out some more of his novels).

  3. March 11, 2010 6:31 am

    From the excerpt, I can see what you mean about how the author puts the “lives and experiences of bacteria in a language that intuitively makes sense to people. I’m sure that this was a challenging task, but he makes it look effortless!”

    Now I’m wondering if this is a book I should read!

  4. March 11, 2010 7:30 am

    A friend of mine’s son almost died from E Coli (she actually wrote a book about their experience) so it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for a while. I’ll have to add this one to my wish list.

    • March 12, 2010 12:17 pm

      I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s son. :(

      The first thing the book talks about is that most E. Coli is harmless; we all have billions in our guts all the time.

  5. March 11, 2010 8:02 am

    Wow, you and Ana and the germs ;-) I do not read many pop science books though I have quite a few on my shelves, just in case I ever want to learn how longitude was agreed upon or what’s up with the concept of time. I haven’t yet been overly eager to discover those, but I am sure one day, I will! And at that time, I will look into the E Coli virus, too :-)

  6. March 11, 2010 9:03 am

    I would never have thought to read a book like this, but now… hmm… It comes down to the writer/writing, doesn’t it? They can make or break a nonfiction book.

    I love the “pop” ones too. My favourites – and I haven’t read many – are Made to Break by Giles Slade (think I got his name right), which is about planned obsolence and electronic waste; Heat: How to stop the World From Burning by George Monbiot – pretty obvious what that one’s about!; and The World Without Us, which is absolutely fascinating and scary and covers history, pollution, architecture, brilliant. If you haven’t read them I highly recommend them :D

    • March 12, 2010 12:18 pm

      Definitely comes down to the writing! :) Of your favourites, I’ve only read World w/o Us. I’ll have to check the other ones!

  7. March 11, 2010 9:11 am

    I have a microbiology degree and worked for a while in the field, so maybe because of that (like bringing your work home with you?) and because I disliked it the whole time (I should have been a liberal arts major instead), I tend to avoid pop science books unless it’s neurology type (Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin) or epidemology (“Flu” by Gina Kolata). However, it sounds like Zimmer has done a good job with this book. E. Coli *does* look like little submarines!

    • March 12, 2010 12:19 pm

      lol-that makes sense! :) Oh, I love Sacks.

  8. March 11, 2010 10:55 am

    “Eukaryotic” … don’t you just love words? I like saying this one :)

    • March 12, 2010 12:20 pm

      I do love words-my FAVOURITE thing about English is the huge variety of vocabulary. :) Eukaryotic is a great word to say.

  9. March 11, 2010 11:44 am

    Whoa, you have the most organized reading system I have ever heard. And this book sounds great! I am a bit dumb about science, so I appreciate pop science books that put it into terms I can (hopefully) understand.

    • March 12, 2010 12:24 pm

      lol-yeah, I’m all about organisation! I haven’t taken science since high school, and I understood everything. So you’ll be fine. :)

  10. March 11, 2010 1:34 pm

    I need to ask, um, what actually is ‘pop science’? (In my mind, I actually see ‘science’ all bottled up like a fizzy drink that goes ‘pop’ when you open it!)

    When I watched your vlog the other day, and you mentioned Carl Zimmer, I went and put on hold a book of his! I can’t remember the title right now, but I’m going to be picking it up from the library later today, so I’m really looking forward to enjoying a good science book.

    And surprisingly though, I think the E. Coli is plenty interesting. =)

    • March 12, 2010 12:25 pm

      lol; popular science

      Awesome-I hope you enjoy whichever one you got!

  11. March 11, 2010 4:56 pm

    It’s not often that I enthusiastically add a book on E-Coli to my reading list, but you convinced me to do so!

  12. March 12, 2010 1:18 am

    While reading your entry, when i saw that E.coli was included in the book, i got quite surprised. Bcoz due to my profession (i am in pharmaceutical field), i come across with the name E.coli almost everyday but it never occured to me that one day i would like to read about it thinking that it would be boring…
    But now i guess your thoughts changed mine too…now on i will try to be a good friend of E.coli :)

    Btw, for your information, Shafak’s last novel is now in English with the name “40 rules of love”. I had adored that book while reading. You can see my review from this link:

    • March 12, 2010 12:25 pm

      Thanks for letting me know. :) E. Coli has a ton more interesting things about it than I would have thought!

  13. March 12, 2010 4:25 am

    Wow, I did not know Zimmer had a new book. I will have to read this one. Loved his book on parasites. Thanks for the heads up !!!

  14. March 13, 2010 5:42 am

    Going on the list… Thanks! Terrific review.


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