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Ashcroft FM (2000) Life at the Extremes (Harper Collins, 326 pages)

In Life at the Extremes Frances Ashcroft, Professor of Physiology at Oxford University, investigates the related questions: how much can the human body endure? What can it survive, what causes it to fail? Why can some creatures tolerate conditions that would kill others? The extremes in question, to which bodies are periodically subjected, either voluntarily or not, include the limits of endurable temperature and pressure; physical constraints on speed; the weightlessness, vacuum and utter cold of space; and a number of environments that, for various reasons, are so unpleasant as to limit drastically the options of life-forms that attempt to inhabit them. By its nature, such a subject does not lend itself to continuous narrative, and Life at the Extremes may be best regarded as a kind of anthology into which one can dip to pull out examples, cheerful or gruesome, of what can happen to living tissue at the extremes. Here is Mr Blagden, accompanied by some eggs, a raw steak and a dog, entering a room heated to 105 degrees C, in the late 18th century. Fifteen minutes later the steak and eggs were cooked but Mr Blagden and the dog were not. A clear and absorbing explanation of mammalian heat regulation follows. Here are dreadful pictures of frost-bitten extremities; Sir Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile; a frog frozen solid in a block of ice but still alive and well; divers and the bends; astronauts and the redistribution of bodily fluids in weightlessness; flamingos enduring their caustic soda lakes; the physiology of the chilblain. Frances Ashcroft writes warmly and with wit: her many illustrative anecdotes are well chosen and provoke much thought about how life copes with, and adapts to, the physical circumstances it finds itself in. --Robin Davidson

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