The Sand Dollar book: “Review by Jack Goodfellow”

This book is worth every penny. In an era when we’re lucky to glean one or two
inspiring ideas from a book of nonfiction, Delta Willis has packed this one
with dozens– possibility space, tensegrity, morphodynamics… And the details:
did you know that a fly has a three-speed gear shift for its wings? Or that
the branches of an oak tree are frequently longer than the tree’s height? Nature’s
designs are not always ideal, but they have uncanny ways of dealing with the
conditions of this planet, using a great economy of means. The author introduces
us in a very personal way to the researchers, inventors, and engineers who’ve
tried to understand and/or use nature’s schemes, and continue to do so. At
the center of the book is the patriarch of “growth and form,” D’Arcy
Thompson, whose legacy is perhaps still not fully realized. His predecessors
(Leonardo da Vinci, Fibonacci…) and successors (Fuller, Seilacher…) are
juxtaposed more on the basis of pertinence than conventional plodding chronology.
The author shows a natural playfulness, weaving her own experiences into the
explanations, and allowing her personages to speak for themselves. Dolf Seilacher’s
words occasionally shows signs of nature experimenting on the spot.

In the spirit of her controlling metaphor, the sand dollar, Willis gives immediate
delight like the flower design etched on a sand dollar’s back, and deftly reveals
the underlying intrigue such as the sand dollar’s intricate food grooves, tube
feet, and system of sand ballast under the thin etched dome. Faced with this
abundant evidence of genius in nature’s designs, I found myself asking what
exactly this genius could be. As Stephen Jay Gould has said, these are “paths that
a sensible God would never tread.” But while physical laws describe a trend
to disorder (entropy), life plays with designs and moves toward greater order,
as if consciousness were not an exclusive property of the brain. This book is
full of “possibility space” and it’s a good read. 13 June, 1999; Gallargues, France

Giving
it 5 of 5 stars
, Reviewer from Louisiana
Delta Willis has mastered the art of making scientific concepts easy to
understand. Her celebration of our natural universe and enthusiasm for
the scientists who
inspire her is infectious. A joy of discovery, steeped in a sense of the
absurd, makes her writing both knowledgeable and naive — and devilishly
fun. HIGHLY
RECOMMENDED.

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