Life at the Extremes

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9780002559461: Life at the Extremes

The challenge of scaling the highest mountain, exploring the deepest ocean, crossing the hottest desert, or swimming in near-freezing water is irresistible to many people. Life at the Extremes is an engrossing exploration of what happens to our bodies in these seemingly uninhabitable environments. Frances Ashcroft weaves stories of extraordinary feats of endurance with historical material and the latest scientific findings as she investigates the limits of human survival and the remarkable adaptations that enable us to withstand extreme conditions.

What causes mountain sickness? How is it possible to reach the top of Everest without supplementary oxygen, when passengers in an airplane that depressurized at the same altitude would lose consciousness in seconds? Why do divers get the bends but sperm whales do not? How long you can survive immersion in freezing water? Why don't penguins get frostbite? Will men always be faster runners than women? How far into deep space can a body travel?

As she considers these questions, Ashcroft introduces a cast of extraordinary scientific personalities—inventors and explorers who have charted the limits of human survival. She describes many intriguing experiments and shows how scientific knowledge has enabled us to venture toward and beyond ever greater limits. Life at the Extremes also considers what happens when athletes push their bodies to the edge, and tells of the remarkable adaptations that enable some organisms to live in boiling water, in highly acidic lakes, or deep in the middle of rocks.

Anyone who flies in an airplane, sails the high seas, goes skiing or walking in the mountains, or simply weathers subzero winters or sweltering summers will be captivated by this book. Full of scientific information, beautifully written, and packed with many fascinating digressions, Life at the Extremes lures us to the very edge of human survival.

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Review:

"It is an extraordinary coincidence," writes English physiologist Frances Ashcroft, "that the highest peak on Earth is also about the highest point at which humans can survive unaided." A coincidence, to be sure, and, like many other milestones of the limits of human endurance, one known to us through the joint efforts of scientists, mountain climbers, explorers, and athletes.

Ashcroft's book is a thoroughly engaging survey of those limits and their origins in the nature of things, of what happens to human beings in the most difficult environmental conditions. She writes, for instance, of why it is that astronauts have trouble standing after returning to Earth (because, in part, their leg muscles quickly atrophy outside of terrestrial gravity); of how the famed Japanese pearl divers condition themselves to attain such extraordinary underwater depths; of how and why the consumption of carbohydrates and caffeine can improve athletic performance; of why British children so easily suffer heat exhaustion on trips to such semitropical venues as, say, Disneyworld, whereas young Saudis can tolerate much higher temperatures (but would likely not thrive in an English winter).

Backed by extensive field research--the author has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, sweated it out in Japanese hot tubs, and run after her share of buses--as well as by a wealth of laboratory studies, Ashcroft's book is of great appeal to anyone who wishes to test the world's limits--or their own. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Frances Ashcroft is Professor of Physiology at Oxford University and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. She is author of Insulin (1992) and Ion Channels and Disease (2000).

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Frances Ashcroft
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