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Science  13 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5916, pp. 879
DOI: 10.1126/science.1167929

Echoes of Life What Fossil Molecules Reveal About Earth History by Susan M. Gaines, Geoffrey Eglinton, and Jürgen Rullkötter Oxford University Press, New York, 2009. 375 pp. $35, £18.99. ISBN 9780195176193.

I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who. I send them over land and sea, I send them east and west; But after they have worked for me, I give them all a rest. -Rudyard Kipling (1)

In the High and Far off times, O Best Beloved, there were young scientists who were full of ‘satiable curiosities about the molecules of bygone life. These scholars of fossils molecules, much like the Elephant's Child, followed a seeming esoteric curiosity against the wisdom and recommendations of those on a more established track. Their enthusiasm and thirst for discovery were paired with intellectual discipline and timed perfectly to harness rapidly emerging analytical tools in chromatography and mass spectrometry. This happy confluence opened the field of Organic Geochemistry and fostered discovery of how (and when and why and where and by whom) the molecular remains of life are transformed and preserved in the mud of oceans, lakes, and, even, perhaps, in the sediments of the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River itself.

In Echoes of Life: What Fossil Molecules Reveal About Earth History, the delightful writing of lead author Susan Gaines is infused with the enthusiasm and extensive knowledge of her collaborators, Geoffrey Eglinton and Jürgen Rullkötter. This unlikely trio—a writer, a founding father of molecular biogeochemistry, and a leading petroleum organic geochemist—have created a work that is as difficult to characterize as it is fun to read. It is most emphatically not a standard textbook, although it is riddled with details and contains many helpful and sometimes humorous illustrations, a scholarly bibliography, a glossary, and a useful table of fossil molecules. It is also not a book aimed for a broad audience with limited tolerance for scientific terms and discourse, even though the prose is accessible and technical concepts are whimsically translated into clear analogies. To illustrate, here is the authors' description of how mass spectrometry can be used to discern molecular structure:

It's like dropping a tray full of wine-glasses: a few will escape unscathed, some will shatter completely, but most will break into three pieces—the round cup, the stem, and the thick-glassed base…. By examining all these fragments one can, in principle, figure out what an intact wineglass looked like….

CREDIT: RUDYARD KIPLING/FROM JUST SO STORIES

The prose is relentlessly precise and clear, and the authors carefully define concepts and terms as they go. For someone new to the discipline, the book is best read from start to finish (perhaps with an unbroken wineglass at your side) as the terms and details accumulate with each new definition or idea.

This book will be enjoyed by anyone who is curious about the molecular remnants of life and the tales they tell about ancient Earth. The birth, growth, and maturation of biogeochemistry are revealed through vignettes of discovery that capture the thrill of the hunt for insight and snips of the human story behind the science. The engaging anecdotes are filled with intrigue, chance encounters, and even a touch of romance (scientists, including organic geochemists, are human after all). Both the human and scientific tales are told with warmth and excitement.

Organic geochemistry is the study of the origin, transformation, and fate of life-derived matter on Earth. Processes that affect organic molecules stretch from biochemistry to geochemistry and transport us from star dust to mountains to the humble mud of ancient oceans. As illustrated throughout Echoes of Life, the study of ancient molecules weaves together sedimentary and physical processes, environmental biology, and the analytical prowess of geochemistry. The molecules' structures and isotopic signatures record their biological origin and history. Thus the molecules provide clues about, and serve as proxies for, conditions in ancient environments and within geologic basins. The chemical, biological, and geologic processes affecting carbon on Earth (and recorded by biomarkers) are fundamental to understanding both climate and fossil energy, timely topics indeed.

Echoes of Life will delight those who know the work but not the individuals, and it will charm those who know both the science and the researchers. But these groups represent a relatively narrow reach. Far more important, the book will be invaluable for readers approaching biogeochemistry from an allied science or as a student. It has an even broader appeal as a story or, more accurately, a collection of stories about discovery. The work offers a festive celebration of why science is fun and of the “rampant human curiosity” that fuels science, scientists, and young elephants alike.

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