Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds ,


Princeton U. Press
Princeton, NJ
, 2009. $75.00, $35.00 paper (302 pp.). ISBN 978-0-691-13806-0, ISBN 978-0-691-13807-7 paper

“Evolution cannot escape its earthly context … nor can it meddle with mathematics,” writes Steven Vogel in his introduction to Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds. Therefore, the design of organisms reflects their physical context, in which are applied the very same principles of gravity, inertia, and heat transfer, and the same properties of fluids and materials that underlie many well-understood phenomena in physics and engineering.

A number of books targeting various audiences have been written about the interface between physics and biology. However, most of them are organized around biological principles; they focus on particular functions, such as locomotion, that living organisms must perform or on particular structural features observed in plants and animals. In contrast, Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds is organized first and foremost around physical principles.

Such a book could be written only by someone with a rich knowledge of biomechanics, and Vogel, an emeritus professor of biology at Duke University, fits the bill. Considered one of the founders of the biomechanics community in the US, his distinguished research career has focused on organism-fluid interactions and such diverse topics as the behavior of leaves in the wind, passive ventilation of prairie-dog burrows, and airflow through the branching antennae of some moths. His breadth of knowledge is clearly reflected in the examples presented and the creative thought embodied in Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds.

Vogel uses the same approachable, entertaining writing style evident in his previous works, which include Life in Moving Fluids: The Physical Biology of Flow (Princeton University Press, 2nd edition, 1996), Comparative Biomechanics: Life’s Physical World (Princeton University Press, 2003), and Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants (Princeton University Press, 1988). Originally published as a series of essays in the Journal of Biosciences, Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds includes an eclectic selection of topics that reflect Vogel’s interests; he also touches on his ideas about areas of research that could benefit from further investigation. The book is detailed in its coverage of the major physical principles and also covers some topics that rarely receive attention, such as the behavior of real-world projectiles (for example, seeds, pollen, and spores propelled from their parent organism) and static versus dynamic stability of organisms during various modes of locomotion.

After briefly introducing each concept and providing relevant equations, Vogel proceeds to lay out an array of biological examples demonstrating how organisms are affected by, cope with, and take advantage of the basic principles to which they are subject. The book includes numerous tables of useful data accumulated or generated by the author; they cover such topics as launch speeds of biological projectiles and the twistiness-to-bendiness ratio of biological structures. It also contains a number of back-of-the-envelope calculations that engage the quantitatively minded reader. The diversity of case studies and examples is inspiring—just when the reader feels that a particular topic may be exhausted, Vogel redirects the discussion from external to internal mechanics, from the whole organism to the cell, or from actively locomoting animals to sessile invertebrates and plants. The text moves rapidly from one topic to another and is accompanied by simple black-and-white drawings that serve to illustrate key points. It all makes for an entertaining read.

Although organized around physical challenges, the main focus of Glimpses of Creatures in Their Physical Worlds is on biological examples of how organisms meet those challenges. The level of technical and mathematical detail is deliberately kept to a minimum; indeed, biologists seeking a more advanced understanding may want more. The book, accessible to the general public, could serve as a text for a college-level science course for nonmajors if supplemented with some basic explanations. Its diversity of examples and quantitative approach should also stimulate lively discussion in undergraduate or graduate courses in biomechanics, applied physics, and engineering. Moreover, Vogel provides references to more technical publications. For readers from a variety of backgrounds, this book is sure to serve as an inspiring entry into the field of biomechanics.