Exploring Alien Life, Cat Science and More New Books to Read

Our book reviewer looks at Red Cloud’s feat and the romance of hot air

Courtesy The Viking Press

Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life
by J. Craig Venter
“The day is not far off when we will be able to send a robotically controlled genome-sequencing unit in a probe to other planets to read the DNA sequence of any alien microbe life that may be there,” writes scientist J. Craig Venter. It sounds fantastical, but the tone of the proposal is not out of line with Venter’s previous feats: sequencing his own genome, for example, so that he could make it public without privacy and consent concerns. And Venter knows something about the possibilities of new life-forms. In addition to being the main force behind a private effort to sequence the human genome, he claims credit for creating what he calls “the first synthetic organism” in 2010—a bacterium genome, artificially built from the basic building blocks of DNA and transplanted into another cell. In creating this organism, Venter pushed the boundaries of genetic synthesis and transfer, but also attempted to winnow down what we understand to be the minimal genetic requirements for life. The underlying inquiry at the center of his book is a philosophical and semantic question as well as a scientific one: What is life? Venter packs an enormous amount of information into the pages he devotes to exploring this question, covering everything from the history of vitalism—the belief that there is some nonphysical, animating force behind life—to the ups and downs of his own genetic experiments, to current explorations on Mars. “I am confident that life once thrived on Mars and may well still exist there today,” Venter writes. (The book’s title comes from the idea that we may eventually be able to transmit­—at the speed of light—messages from Earth to a machine on Mars capable of turning computer code into DNA.) Some of what Venter describes has scary, sci-fi potential, and he has certainly been known to test limits, but this book demonstrates he’s also capable of thoughtful contemplation.

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air
by Richard Holmes
Oh how low we’ve come. Forget the overpriced soft drinks and plastic-wrapped sandwiches: champagne, caviar and croissants once were obligatory every time a passenger took to the air. Of course, what we’ve traded in luxury we’ve gained in safety and convenience, but reading Richard Holmes’ delightful account of the history of hot air balloons, one can’t help but feel nostalgic. Perhaps more than any other mode of transportation, the hot air balloon was also a mode of exploration, expanding vistas with every journey. There are plenty of dreamy episodes—Napoleon’s favorite balloonist, Sophie Blanchard, who flew in a decorative silk gondola; the Confederate Army’s makeshift balloon, made from the skirts of a dozen Scarlett O’Haras. But Falling Upwards is not just a tale of quixotic visionaries (those with “dash and eccentricity,” as Holmes puts it); it’s an utterly engrossing history of attempts to harness the power of air. Such ventures could end in triumph, such as when Parisians used hot air balloons to send messages from the besieged city during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; or tragedy, such as when an attempt to reach the North Pole stranded the balloon’s inhabitants on icy floes where they eventually perished. Holmes writes beautifully and movingly, turning a book about the evolution of technology into an exploration of the human spirit.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend
by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
History has not been unkind to Red Cloud so much as indifferent, somehow overlooking his remarkable story: a self-made man who rose up to command an intertribal army of about 3,000 men. In 1867, toward the end of what was known as “Red Cloud’s War,” he led these men to victory over the U.S. Army—the first and last time an Indian could make the claim. The Sioux warrior’s story is told fully in The Heart of Everything That Is. The scrupulousness of the telling can make it drag; those expecting heated battle tales will get something closer to meticulous military history. But the authors make good use of an autobiography that Red Cloud penned late in life. Essentially forgotten until the 1990s, the manuscript provides a valuable perspective—“a rare look into the opening of the West from the Sioux point of view.” The writers don’t shy away from the atrocities on both sides in the gruesome, long-running conflict between the Indians and the U.S. forces. But when, for the umpteenth time, U.S. officials break a contract as soon as the glint of gold is spotted in the hills, one cannot help but feel that there’s all the more reason to celebrate one of the Sioux’s most impressive fighters.

Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
by John Bradshaw
I have to admit, when it comes to that epic dividing line—cat person versus dog person—I fall firmly on the canine side. I enjoyed Dog Sense, Bradshaw’s earlier best seller, but I wasn’t eager to pick up his exploration of all things feline. Strangely and somewhat sheepishly, I found myself enjoying it too. Books about animals tend to swing from how-to manuals devoid of evidence for the tactics they propose to scientific tracts with little comment on the way we actually live with our four-legged friends. Cat Sense strikes a nice balance, perhaps because Bradshaw researched it for 30 years. He synthesizes academic articles, experiments and his own observations into a lively, readable text. Bradshaw’s main argument is that cats do not communicate with their human owners as readily as dogs, and therefore we’re often at risk of misunderstanding them. (Think you got your cat a “friend” to keep it company? Most cats prefer to be alone.) His concern sounds a bit alarmist—“we are in danger of demanding more from our cats than they can deliver”—but the somewhat overstated frame for the book does not diminish its pleasures.