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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Popular Science

A Series of Fortunate Events Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You

Popular Science New
By: Sean B Carroll(Author), Kate Baldwin(Illustrator), Natalya Balnova(Illustrator)
214 pages, 40 b/w photos and b/w illustrations, 1 table
A short and snappy book about the role of chance in life.
A Series of Fortunate Events
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  • A Series of Fortunate Events ISBN: 9780691234694 Paperback May 2022 Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • A Series of Fortunate Events ISBN: 9780691201757 Hardback Oct 2020 Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

Why is the world the way it is? How did we get here? Does everything happen for a reason or are some things left to chance? Philosophers and theologians have pondered these questions for millennia, but startling scientific discoveries over the past half century are revealing that we live in a world driven by chance. A Series of Fortunate Events tells the story of the awesome power of chance and how it is the surprising source of all the beauty and diversity in the living world.

Like every other species, we humans are here by accident. But it is shocking just how many things had to happen in certain ways for any of us to exist, any of which might never have occurred. From an extremely improbable asteroid impact, to the wild gyrations of the Ice Age, to invisible accidents in our parents' gonads, we are all here though an astonishing series of fortunate events. And chance continues to reign every day over the razor-thin line between our life and death.

This is a relatively small book about a really big idea. It is also a spirited tale. Drawing inspiration from Monty Python, Kurt Vonnegut, and other great thinkers, and crafted by one of today's most accomplished science storytellers, A Series of Fortunate Events is an irresistibly entertaining and thought-provoking account of one of the most important but least appreciated facts of life.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Reads like an appetizer that invites further exploration
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 18 Mar 2022 Written for Paperback

    Every one of us is here through a long string of happy accidents that might just as well not have happened. That is the contention behind A Series of Fortunate Events, a short and snappy book by evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll. Examining planetary events, evolution, and our personal lives and deaths – and introducing one remarkable French biologist – it read like an appetizer that left me wanting to explore this topic further.

    This book can be seen as a complement of sorts to Carroll's previous book The Serengeti Rules. Where that book examined the similarity between rules underlying both physiology and ecology, this book reminds you that that still leaves plenty of opportunity for chance to govern biology. One person that crops up in both books is Jacques Monod (1910–1976), the Nobel-Prize winning French biochemist. In his best-selling book Chance & Necessity he wrote: "chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere" (p. 8). A Series of Fortunate Events can easily be seen as Carroll's tribute to Monod's book. As the subtitle indicates, it explores chance on three levels.

    First up is the role of chance in the external world, which, surprisingly, least impressed me. Carroll gives a long and lively description of the immediate and long-term impacts of the asteroid that did the dinosaurs in. So far, so familiar. But what about the role of chance? Carroll is brief: impacts this big are rare and the Yucatán Peninsula was a bad spot, rich in hydrocarbons and sulfur that were thrown into the atmosphere. What struck me as odd was his assertion that the asteroid would have harmlessly splashed into the ocean had it been off by 30 minutes, thanks to Earth's rotation. Given Earth also orbits the Sun, would that not have resulted in a near-miss? He omits any mention of the cataloguing of near-Earth objects and what we have since learned about the risk of cosmic collisions.

    Carroll similarly sees the fingerprint of chance in our planetary climate since then. The formation of the Himalayas exposed fresh rock to be weathered, drawing down CO2 and lowering global temperatures. Carroll considers the timing of the tectonic collision between the Indian and Asian plates a fluke; the former is relatively thin and thus moved relatively fast across the Indian Ocean. I am more inclined to agree that the rapid climatic fluctuations of the last 100,000 years have an unpredictable character to them. Interestingly, Walter Alvarez, who suggested an asteroid killed the dinosaurs, wrote A Most Improbable Journey that looks at highly improbable events in our planet's history, so I am putting a pin in this topic for now.

    Far more convincing are the chapters on the role of chance in evolution. Darwin already talked about the accidental nature of variation but did not yet know about DNA and mutations. Point mutations, where the difference is literally one "letter" in the DNA, are one kind and they can happen in several ways. The mechanism Carroll details here was completely new to me. Each of the four DNA bases can occur in one of two forms, so-called tautomers, with the keto-form common and the enol-form rare. They differ in the position of a single hydrogen atom, allowing for example guanine (G) to bind with thymine (T) instead of its regular partner cytosine (C). This shape-shifting is a transient phenomenon lasting just a fraction of a second, but if a base is in the "wrong" configuration exactly at the moment that DNA polymerase is duplicating a DNA strand, a point mutation results. In 1953, Watson and Crick already speculated this could happen, but it took until 2015 before we had the technology to visualise this at the atomic level.

    But wait, given that mutations are rare, and that many new traits require multiple mutations, are the odds of new traits thus arising not astronomically small? As explained here, they do not have to happen simultaneously. This is where natural selection comes in. As long as each mutation along the way provides some benefit, the necessary mutations can accumulate in a stepwise fashion. What this also reveals, Carroll adds, is the limitation of both of these mechanisms: "natural selection can't invent anything on its own [while] mutation alone cannot change a population nor produce multiple changes at once" (p. 117). In other words "chance invents, and natural selection propagates the invention" (p. 118). Or at least, natural selection does so when an invention is useful in the population at that time and place. To take his example of antifreeze proteins in Antarctic fish, the mutations for these are unlikely to be selected for when occurring in tropical fish.

    This part is another example that left me wanting to immediately read deeper into this topic. I am aware more has been written about randomness and chance in evolution and an interesting counterpoint is raised by the recent Mutation, Randomness & Evolution. Furthermore, Carroll gives a nice definition of contingency: "Chance [...] pertains to an event itself, while a contingency emerges through the benefit of hindsight" (p. 59). In other words, "contingency is the aftermath of chance" (p. 60). However, though his further reading list mentions Improbable Destinies, he sidesteps the whole contingency versus convergence debate, that is, the question of how repeatable evolution is.

    The final part looks at chance in our personal lives and deaths. When our body creates sperm and egg cells, there are several mechanisms at play that create an almost limitless amount of genetic variation. The same is true of our immune system. We have millions of different antibodies to recognize foreign invaders, but we do not have millions of genes coding for an antibody each. Instead, a clever mechanism that mixes one of the many variants of each of the several segments that make up an antibody is enough to create the required variation. And chance mutations have a role to play in cancer. Both bad habits such as smoking and the good fortune of our extended lifespan can result in random mutations building up and culminating in cancer.

    Carroll has won awards for both his books and documentaries. His skill at science popularisation shines through here, as the writing is amusing, even irreverent, and he draws readers into each chapter with general interest stories. The afterword, an imaginary conversation between comedians and other intellectual heroes of Carroll, some of whom "are quite inconveniently dead" (p. 167), is a nice flourish. There are useful infographics throughout by Kate Baldwin, with additional illustrations by Natalya Balnova. Overall then, this is an accessible and fun book but be forewarned that it might leave you wanting more. Personally, I take that as a good sign.
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Sean B. Carroll is an award-winning scientist, writer, educator, and film producer. He is Vice President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Balo-Simon Chair of Biology at the University of Maryland. His books include The Serengeti Rules (Princeton), Brave Genius, and Remarkable Creatures, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Popular Science New
By: Sean B Carroll(Author), Kate Baldwin(Illustrator), Natalya Balnova(Illustrator)
214 pages, 40 b/w photos and b/w illustrations, 1 table
A short and snappy book about the role of chance in life.
Media reviews

"The role of happenstance in determining the fate of the world may seem a matter for philosophy more than science, but Carroll, a biologist, shows how central the idea is to everyday existence."
New York Times Book Review

"With conversational wit, Carroll encourages us to embrace the randomness of the world."
– Scott Hershberger, Scientific American

"The Yucatan asteroid is an epic example of the sheer randomness which, as Sean B. Carroll argues in this short but thought-provoking book, rules both the universe and our own lives."
– Nick Rennison, Daily Mail

"Carroll takes readers on an entertaining tour of biological discovery that emphasizes the dominant role played by chance in shaping the conditions for life on Earth. Along the way, he provides insights and humor that make the book a quick, lively read that both educates and entertains [...] Books such as this remind us to make our unlikely time here count."
– Ivor Knight, Science

"Carroll's work renders hefty topics accessible, exploring the perfect storm of events responsible for evolution, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs and every living person's conception."
– Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine

"It is to biologist Sean B. Carroll's credit that he's found a way of taking a puzzle that could easily fill volumes (and probably has filled volumes), and presenting it to us in a slim, non-technical, and fun little book."
– Dan Falk, Undark

"A history book about humanity told with wit and style."
 – John Brandon, Forbes

"A short, sweet, and scientifically solid view of life."
Kirkus, starred review

"I couldn't put it down. If you're at all interested in science, you'll keep turning these pages."
– Flora Taylor, American Scientist

"If you enjoyed Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, you'll like this breezy, equally amusing trip through time [...] A stellar little book about science.""
– Jenny Nicholls, Waiheke Weekender

"In Carroll, three traits that are rare in themselves conjoin in an even rarer alignment: a command of multiple scientific fields, an unrivaled ability to clearly explain complex scientific concepts, and a deep instinct for storytelling. It is only fitting that such an unlikely combination produced A Series of Fortunate Events, since this discipline-spanning, highly engaging volume is all about the unlikely combinations that gave rise to all life, to the human species, and to each of us as unique individuals."
– Barbara N. Horowitz, The Quarterly Review of Biology

"Entertaining and informative, Carroll's latest is a real eye-opener."
– Nick Smith, Engineering & Technology

"Golf games, coincidental immunity, and pandemics: A Series of Fortunate Events ranges from examining trivial events to sobering ones, but remains relevant throughout, revealing how chance affects everyday life."
– Rebecca Foster, Foreword Reviews

"Entertaining and informative, Carroll's latest is a real eye-opener."
– Dr Alyson Hitch, The Bay

"This book lays bare how often unpredictable events have shaped our world; it educates, engages, and entertains."
– R. M. Denome, Choice

"A short and charming book that will give you a new appreciation of the vagaries of life and their influence."
– Ian Simmons, Fortean Times

"Fascinating and exhilarating – Sean B. Carroll at his very best."
– Bill Bryson, author of The Body: A Guide for Occupants

"Profound, witty, and funny – this book will change the way you see yourself, and the universe, forever."
– Alice Roberts, author of The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

"With equal measure of scientific authority, lively storytelling, and a profoundly optimistic view of the future, A Series of Fortunate Events is the rare science book that reads like a guilty pleasure. Writing with deep insight and great humor, Carroll educates, entertains, and inspires."
– B. N. Horowitz, MD, coauthor of Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other Animals

"In A Series of Fortunate Events, Sean Carroll pulls off a remarkable feat. He handles the 'Big Question' – the role of chance in the making of our bodies and our planet – with wit and scientific rigor. Carroll treats us to a tour of Earth history, DNA, cancer, and evolution that is awe-inspiring, urgent, and even at times laugh-out-loud funny."
– Neil Shubin, paleontologist and author of Your Inner Fish

"A Series of Fortunate Events is an engaging blend of science and culture, written in Carroll's usual easygoing style. Highly recommended!"
– Matthew Cobb, author of The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

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