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Life at the Extremes


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About the Author

Frances Ashcroft is a Professor of Physiology at Oxford. She divides her time between research on insulin, teaching and writing. 'She seems to have experienced most of the extreme environments she investigates, and has the power of making the armchair adventurer feel quite frail. Add to that her gift for carving deep into your mind how vulnerable our species is to extreme conditions, and you are in for a thrilling read. Life at the Extremes is fascinating an extremely engaging piece of work.' New Scientist 'Easy to read, entertaining and informative' John Gribbin, Sunday Times


Ashcroft, a professor of physiology at Oxford, offers a fascinating compendium of facts about what it takes to endure intense heat and cold, the pressure of the deep sea, the lack of pressure and oxygen at high altitudes and the void of space, as well as what is necessary to perform such demanding sports as sprinting. She takes readers step by step through the intricacies of each. For example, in her chapter on mountain climbing, readers receive a brief history of "mountain sickness" and accounts of its effects; a tutorial on atmospheric pressure, how we become acclimated to the lack thereof and the dangers of airplane depressurization; there is also a sidebar on why birds can fly over Everest without suffering. Similarly, her chapter on deep-sea diving covers the perils of pressure, why people get the bends and whales don't, how Japanese fisherwomen can swim incredibly deep and how technology has helped us reach so far down. Her chapters on surviving heat and cold are particularly interesting, illustrating how the human body regulates its temperature and offering many accounts of why, for instance, people survived being lost in the desert and trapped in freezing water. Throughout, Ashcroft also explains how animals have adapted to horrific conditions far better than humans have, despite the efforts of foolhardy scientists to see how far their own bodies can be pushed. This is a worthwhile read both for those who participate in extreme sports and those who prefer to enjoy them from the comfort of an armchair. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

'She has the power of making the armchair adventurer feel quite frail. Add to that her gift for carving deep into your mind how vulnerable our species is to extreme conditions, and you are in for a thrilling read.' New Scientist

'I read "Life at the Extremes" with horrid delight...It is extremely good, crammed with invaluable information but you don't need a degree in cryptocryogenics to understand it. Here is a scientist who can enthral even as she instructs - and the way she accomplishes this is by telling adventure stories...As a testament to the tenacity of the human race, this book is a potent mix of the ingenious, the heroic and the hardy.' Literary Review

'For would-be explorers snuggled up in their armchairs - or, indeed stretched out on the beach - this book, with its many vicarious thrills, makes for ideal reading.' Economist

'A very good book...which works both as a continuous narrative of delightful vignettes and a quick reference guide. Easy to read, entertaining and informative.' Sunday Times

'Ashcroft is good at opening up aspects of daily life normally sealed off to the non-scientist.' Sara Wheeler, Spectator

This book is not quite in the "science of everyday life" genre since it deals with extreme environments, but its purpose is the same: to elucidate for the ordinary reader the scientific underpinnings of our lives. Writing in an anecdotal, essay-like style, Ashcroft (physiology, Oxford Univ.) examines the physiology, chemistry, and physics of life (primarily human) at extremes of altitude, pressure, cold, heat, speed, and outer space, plus extreme environments for life itself (e.g., anaerobic and highly acidic). Readers will learn how the body acclimatizes to climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen, how weightlessness affects the body, and the rationale behind training regimes for sprinters and marathoners. There is a wealth of information here, but it will be heavy going for the reader who has little knowledge of the biosciences or is unfamiliar with Celsius temperatures. Despite this drawback and a few minor, if jarring, factual errors (e.g., listing the legs of the triathalon in the wrong order), this book will make an excellent addition to public and academic libraries. It is also recommended for high school libraries with strong science programs. [A BOMC selection.]DMargaret Rioux, MBL/WHOI Lib., Woods Hole, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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