Friday, November 02, 2007
The Third Domain
Tim Friend's recent book The Third Domain is an odd book on two levels -- first of all, the story that one would think it tells, that of Carl Woese's discovery of the Archaea, the initial hostile reaction that the discovery met with at the hands of the scientific establishment, and its eventual acceptance by the majority -- makes up only one chapter (chapter 3) of the book. The rest of the book mostly follows field microbiologists like Karl Stetter and Eric Mathur as they collect samples (often, but not always, of archaea) from hot springs and thermal vents. Secondly, rather than being one unified whole, each chapter reads as its own story (which it may well have been; Friend is a former USA Today science writer and may be simply fleshing out articles he's already written). I'm of two minds about this book; as a evolutionary microbial genomicist (and one who has had the honor of working with Woese), I'm glad that there's a new book for the general public that acknowledges that microbes are worth studying for things other than their effect on human health; but on the other hand, I can't help but wonder if the story of the Archaea couldn't have been told in a more engaging manner. Bill Bryson, in his A Short History of Nearly Everything managed to tell Woese's story (if a bit too simplified) in an exciting chapter there. In conclusion, The Third Domain is worth a read (especially if you are interested in the subject), but the definitive book on Woese and the archaea has yet to be written.