Life at the Extremes

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9780002559461: Life at the Extremes

The debut of a female Steve Jones – likeable, literate, lucid and laconic. A sumptous, lavishly illustrated book on the science of human survival

How do people survive extremes of heat, cold, depth and height? This book explains all.

For the geneticist, inheritance is all. But for the physiologist, extremism is all. This book explores the limits to human survival and the physiological adaptations which enable us to exist under extreme conditions. In man’s battle for survival in the harshest of environments, the knowledge imparted by physiology, the ‘logic of life’, is crucial.

Man can only tolerate a limited range of environmental conditions, whereas other lifeforms thrive in the most intense conditions – in 100°+ heat or many, many leagues under the sea in utter darkness or deep in the middle of rocks. Why is this so?

Height – Why did physiologists initially predict man would never reach the summit of Everest unaided? How does altitude work?
• Cold – How long can you survive immersed in ice-cold water? Why can aborigines sleep in the outback when Caucasians can’t? Why don’t penguins get frostbite?
• Heat – Why do marathon runners collapse from heat? How do we sense heat? What is the secret of the Kalahari bushmen?
• Depth – What are the bends? Why don’t sperm whales get them? Why do deep-sea divers suffer bone disorders?
• Speed – Is there a limit to how fast we can run, jump, swim or cycle? Will men always be faster than women? Why can animals always beat us?
• Space – How much acceleration can the human body withstand? How does an astronaut survive? How far into deep space can a body travel?

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Review:

How much can the human body endure? What can it survive, what causes it to fail? Why can some creatures tolerate conditions that would kill others? Frances Ashcroft, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, investigates these and related questions in Life at the Extremes. The extremes in question, to which bodies are periodically subjected, either voluntarily or not, include the limits of endurable temperature and pressure; physical constraints on speed; the weightlessness, vacuum and utter cold of space; and a number of environments that, for various reasons, are so unpleasant as to limit drastically the options of life-forms that attempt to inhabit them. By its nature, such a subject does not lend itself to continuous narrative, and Life at the Extremes may be best regarded as a kind of anthology into which one can dip to pull out examples, cheerful or gruesome, of what can happen to living tissue at the extremes. Here is Mr Blagden, accompanied by some eggs, a raw steak and a dog, entering a room heated to 105 degrees C, in the late 18th century. Fifteen minutes later the steak and eggs were cooked but Mr Blagden and the dog were not. A clear and absorbing explanation of mammalian heat regulation follows. Here are dreadful pictures of frost-bitten extremities; Sir Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile; a frog frozen solid in a block of ice but still alive and well; divers and the bends; astronauts and the redistribution of bodily fluids in weightlessness; flamingos enduring their caustic soda lakes; the physiology of the chilblain. Frances Ashcroft writes warmly and with wit: her many illustrative anecdotes are well chosen and provoke much thought about how life copes with, and adapts to, the physical circumstances it finds itself in. -- Robin Davidson

Review:

• ‘For would-be explorers snuggled up in their armchairs – or, indeed stretched out on the beach – Dr Ashcroft's book, with its many vicarious thrills, makes for ideal holiday reading.’ Economist

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FRANCES ASHCROFT
Published by HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS LTD (2000)
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