Jonathan Silvertown has managed to distill the thousands of years of thought and research behind this and many related biologic questions into a small book so captivating and enlightening that — unusual for a volume packed with difficult scientific concepts — you will read it for pure pleasure
Aging is a complex topic, but the author mixes art, science, and humor to brew a highly readable concoction.
In the Sequoia National Park in central California stands General Sherman, an 80 metre tall redwood. By the time the tree was discovered in the 19th century – and named after an American Civil War hero to guard against logging – General Sherman was already 2000 years old, a nearly unfathomable age by human standards. Yet for a tree, General Sherman is not especially ancient. Some of California's bristlecone pines live more than four millennia. There is also a ring of creosote bushes in the Mojave desert, dubbed King Clone, that one estimate suggests started life as a small shrub nearly 12,000 years ago. Comparison with paltry human lifetimes might make us wince, but it can also teach us a lot about ourselves, as professor of ecology Jonathan Silvertown explains in The Long and the Short of It, an ideal introduction to the science of ageing and mortality. Interwoven with history and poetry, his erudite and eloquent book concisely explains the mechanisms underlying the lifespan of organisms ranging from nematode worms and chickweed to humans and redwoods. Considering their fates in terms of genetics and environment, Silvertown explores the questions that have bedevilled our species for as long as we've had the language to ask: why do we get old and why do we die?
Silvertown is an elegant and vivid communicator, conveying complex ideas and processes in accessible ways without dumbing down his subject matter.
The central question addressed in this concise and fascinating book is stated early: What has science to say about life spans? The subtitles of the chapters show just how much of the relevant science Jonathan Silvertown covers: Aging, Heredity, Plants, Natural Selection, Suicide, Pace, and Mechanisms. He is a master of short, clear explanations of complicated ideas...
The Long and the Short of It is an excellent introduction to the latest biological research and thinking, useful for demographers specializing in aging, likely to engage undergraduates as well, and potentially attractive to many general readers.