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The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is?

Popular Science
The winner of the 2010 Royal Society Book Prize and the 2015 Biochemical Society Award unravels life's mysteries

By: Nick Lane (Author)

360 pages, 37 b/w photos and b/w illustrations

Profile Books

Paperback | Apr 2016 | #226196 | ISBN-13: 9781781250372
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £9.99 $12/€11 approx
Hardback | Apr 2015 | #217789 | ISBN-13: 9781781250365
Out of Print Details

About this book

Why is life the way it is? Bacteria evolved into complex life just once in four billion years of life on earth – and all complex life shares many strange properties, from sex to ageing and death. If life evolved on other planets, would it be the same or completely different?

In The Vital Question, Nick Lane radically reframes evolutionary history, putting forward a cogent solution to conundrums that have troubled scientists for decades. The answer, he argues, lies in energy: how all life on Earth lives off a voltage with the strength of a bolt of lightning. In unravelling these scientific enigmas, making sense of life's quirks, Lane's explanation provides a solution to life's vital questions: why are we as we are, and why are we here at all? This is ground-breaking science in an accessible form, in the tradition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.

Watch a short introduction below:


"[...] Nick reminds me of writers like Jared Diamond, people who develop a grand theory that explains a lot about the world. He is one of those original thinkers who makes you say: "More people should know about this guy’s work." [...] If you’re going to read this book, do it relatively soon. Five years from now, Nick and the other researchers in this field will have gotten a lot further. Of course, there’s no telling whether his specific arguments will turn out to be right. But even if they don’t, I suspect his focus on energy will be seen as an important contribution to our understanding of where we come from, and where are we going."
– Bill Gates

"He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense [...] intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so."
– Peter Forbes, Guardian

"One of the pleasures of good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding but always clear text, Nick Lane's new book succeeds brilliantly [...] I cannot recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane's vivid descriptions and powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader"
– Caspar Henderson, Sunday Telegraph

"Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word "life". In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher's mind. Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here [...] Like the best science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself"
– Matt Ridley, Times

"One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years."
– The Economist

"this is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas [...] The arguments are powerful and persuasive [...] If you're interested in life, you should read this book [...] it does tell an incredible, epic story"
– Michael Le Page, New Scientist

"Nick Lane [...] is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth [...] a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life"
– Clive Cookson, Financial Times

"Lane highlights what I think should be a fourth grand theory of life, one that is often overlooked as we remain bewitched by DNA and its several powers. Simply, the idea that life is a chemical reaction [...] The Vital Question is a bold, eloquent, confident book, and not an easy ride [...] Don't let that put you off; even On the Origin of Species has its chewy sections. Like all great works, it requires effort, and Lane offers no quarter for the casual reader [...] Nick Lane is not only a master storyteller, but this is his research [...] he's that rare species, a scientist who can illuminate the bewildering complexities of biology with clear, luminous words"
– Adam Rutherford, Observer

"A tour de force of inventive science"
– Philip Ball, Prospect

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Nick Lane is a biochemist at the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College, London and the founding member of the UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research. He was recently awarded a 2015 Biochemical Society Award for his outstanding contribution to the molecular life sciences. He is the author of Life Ascending, Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, and Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World, all of which were widely praised by both the scientific and popular press.

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