• Life's Edge

  • The Search for What It Means to Be Alive
  • By: Carl Zimmer
  • Narrated by: Joe Ochman
  • Length: 9 hrs and 15 mins
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (309 ratings)

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Life's Edge

By: Carl Zimmer
Narrated by: Joe Ochman
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Publisher's Summary

“Carl Zimmer is one of the best science writers we have today.” (Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks)

We all assume we know what life is, but the more scientists learn about the living world - from protocells to brains, from zygotes to pandemic viruses - the harder they find it is to locate life’s edge.   

Carl Zimmer investigates one of the biggest questions of all: What is life? The answer seems obvious until you try to seriously answer it. Is the apple sitting on your kitchen counter alive, or is only the apple tree it came from deserving of the word? If we can’t answer that question here on Earth, how will we know when and if we discover alien life on other worlds? The question hangs over some of society’s most charged conflicts - whether a fertilized egg is a living person, for example, and when we ought to declare a person legally dead.   

Life's Edge is an utterly fascinating investigation that no one but one of the most celebrated science writers of our generation could craft. Zimmer journeys through the strange experiments that have attempted to recreate life. Literally hundreds of definitions of what that should look like now exist, but none has yet emerged as an obvious winner. Lists of what living things have in common do not add up to a theory of life. It's never clear why some items on the list are essential and others not. Coronaviruses have altered the course of history, and yet many scientists maintain they are not alive. Chemists are creating droplets that can swarm, sense their environment, and multiply. Have they made life in the lab?   

Whether he is handling pythons in Alabama or searching for hibernating bats in the Adirondacks, Zimmer revels in astounding examples of life at its most bizarre. He tries his own hand at evolving life in a test tube with unnerving results. Charting the obsession with Dr. Frankenstein's monster and how Coleridge came to believe the whole universe was alive, Zimmer leads us all the way into the labs and minds of researchers working on engineering life from the ground up. 

Cover image Courtesy of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. © MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology/Madeline Lancaster 

©2021 Carl Zimmer (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Stories that both dazzle and edify...particularly brilliant in telling the story of DNA.... Zimmer is an astute, engaging writer - inserting the atmospheric anecdote where applicable, drawing out a scientific story and bringing laboratory experiments to life. This book is not just about life, but about discovery itself. It is about error and hubris, but also about wonder and the reach of science.” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, New York Times Book Review

“[Zimmer] embraces the question of what it means to be alive explicitly and with the enthusiasm of an accomplished and successful storyteller. Zimmer has crafted an eminently readable tale, told through the stories and personal anecdotes of the scientists who have devoted their research to defining the essence of life.” (Issues in Science and Technology

“The pleasures of Life’s Edge derive from its willingness to sit with the ambiguities it introduces, instead of pretending to conclusively transform the senseless into the sensible.” (The Washington Post

What listeners say about Life's Edge

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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What is Life?

This book explores the question of "What is life?" and how humanity has studied this idea and the many attempts at creating definitions for life throughout time.

I thought I knew a lot about the subjects discussed in this book, but I actually learned a lot of new history and science from listening to this work. Listening to this work changed some of my long held viewpoints and assumptions on what we know about the origins of life and how extremely difficult it is to even create a definition for life at our present level of scientific understanding.

I'd highly recommend this book to any rational, open minded person, who has ever wondered how much we actually know about the origins of life. There is a lot of very interesting history covered in this book as well, and will explain the state of humanity's understanding through time and how we arrived at the present.

14 people found this helpful

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Best popular science writing of 2021

I just finished Life’s Edge. Zimmer truly match Steven Pinker, James Gleick, David Deutsch, Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond and a few more I can’t recollect straight away. Well done.

13 people found this helpful

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Boring and flacky.

This is a really boring and airy book. I wouldn't call ir a science book but rather an easy-read book. The writer states, and restates, the obvious. He moves from one side topic to anothet without building a thesis , or for that matter, a story. Sometimes he would try to render these side topics cute. In that aspect the book reads like an an extended national geograpgic article. Sleazy.

7 people found this helpful

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Best nonfiction book I've listened to in a while

I really enjoyed this book. Great story telling and wonderful combination of historical and modern science.

6 people found this helpful

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Wasn’t what I thought it was

Seems like, given the title and the preview, that this would be a collection of stories about things that are either not quite alive or just barely alive. You know, life’s edge. It just wasn’t what it could have been. Not well thought through, tried to simplify certain topics while leaving other topics vague, the logical flow was poor. Simply put, this was not a good book.

The best thing about this book was the narrator.

Skip it. I wish I could get a refund.

Sincerely, a teacher of 15 years with a PhD in biology

4 people found this helpful

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Science writing for everyone, well done & fun

Great writer & great narrator. Intriguing & compelling. Most chapters are worth listening to more than once. All the stories & details are woven together nicely & realistically by the end of the book. I highly recommend it.

3 people found this helpful

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Wide-ranging tour of Life’s Biology

Enjoyable and educational, as Zimmer introduces the reader to so many figures significant in the centuries long search for understanding of the nature of Life and its origins. The book’s emphasis was heavier on the biology rather than the philosophical debates surrounding this issue than I would have liked but satisfying nonetheless.

Four Stars. ****

2 people found this helpful

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A thoughtful exporation on the nature of life

At one time, life seemed easy to define. As we've learned more about chemistry and biology, our once clear definitions seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur. I expected to read a book about life's origin when I started. The book went beyond those expectations. It covers the investigations of proto life in laboratories. It asks what life is through the study of viruses and looks s at the theories of viral origins. The author explores how life arose and diversified and our understanding of the lingering debates about how people have defined the beginnings of a human or an animal life.

1 person found this helpful

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Life at the Edge

This is fantastic book. I loved listening to it. It is engaging and entertaining thus keeping your attention. I learned so much from it, and I have couple science degrees. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone!

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Darwin Dogma within.

Stopped reading when he spoke of Darwin evolution. It is time to move on from 17th century, pre-microscope science. So many scientists have.