Vital Dust

VITAL DUST serves two masters. One requires that the book teach real science to the lay reader, and the other requires that the reader be prodded at intervals into ahs of wonderment, lest attention lapse. Nobel laureate de Duve, on writing this book, faced the daunting task of explaining hundreds of years of complex scientific research and discovery in a few hundred pages, and doing so with literary style. He has succeeded admirably.

An example of the kind of performance that the professor in the white lab coat stages in order to make his class of cataleptic undergrads understand and appreciate the old so-these-two-gametes-make-a-zygote story appears on page 183, about the middle of the 300-odd-page spring term. It is sunny and warm outside, and the nonscience major, chin in hand, is staring out the window, hoping that soon, as the millennia roll by, something even more amazing than the eukaryote- prokaryote division will appear on the evolutionary stage. Nature and the doctor comply with the callow summit of evolutionary biology’s unspoken wish: “The pollination record of the mutated plant increased. . . . insects also profited from the plant’s mutation, which guided them to . . . nectar . . . the new evolutionary process moved ineluctably. . . . Further plant mutations created new shapes and colors . . . the most far-reaching instance of mutually advantageous relationships . . . a revolution was launched that sprinkled the green expanses of Earth...

(The entire section is 488 words.)