The Life of a Leaf

September 27, 2012

The Life of a Leaf - what a great little title. As an evangelical botanist, I really wanted to like this book, and to be fair, throughout its pages I found myself becoming increasingly fond of Steven Vogel. This is one of those books in which you can almost hear the author's voice, and by the end of it you begin to feel that you know him personally. So I think I understand what he is trying to achieve in the pages of this book but sadly, for me, it just does not work.

Vogel, who is a research professor in Duke University's department of biology, sets himself an ambitious task by using the leaf as a way to communicate his passion for science. Unfortunately, it is never clear who his intended audience is. For example, the pages are littered with boxes entitled "Do it yourself". These sections include instructions on how to make transparent gelatine blocks and watch food colour diffuse into the gel over a series of days. Another invites the reader to attach leaves to the end of a long pole and watch the leaves fold up as you rotate while holding the pole at arm's length.

All good entertaining stuff, and "Do it yourself" ideas may well amuse a class of schoolchildren. Likewise, the language this book is written in gives the impression that it is aimed at a fairly young or non-specialist readership. Its relentless bouncy style is fine in small doses but it does tend to become tiresome if you read too much in one session.

In spite of giving the impression of being aimed at a general or naive readership, much of the content seems incompatible with the style. Every few pages there are equations that would reduce my undergraduate class to, well, transparent jelly. At one point, Vogel tries to reassure us that we do not need to fully understand these equations but simply appreciate which parameters are denominators, numerators and power terms, and thus determine the influence that each variable is likely to have on the outcome. Brilliant - I wish my students could do that! I am not clear just how that differs from fully understanding the equations, but I do suspect the percentage of the population with that level of mathematical ability and a matching interest in watching jelly change colour is very small.

There are also issues with the content of the book or, more specifically, with the title. It does not sit well with its content. The Life of a Leaf rather implies that this is a book that will look at the living properties of leaves. In reality, this is a book that focuses on the physical properties rather than the biological ones. Vogel's entire premise involves exploring how the laws of nature have affected the design of the leaf and therefore how understanding the leaf gives us a better understanding of these scientific processes at work.

He lists the most important factors as light, temperature, wind and water supply, and thus it is more a physics book than a biology one. This may be a matter of personal preference but I was hoping for a book that explored the living properties of leaves: how they grow and develop, how and why they senesce, how they interact with herbivores and diseases.

This book contains virtually no ecology and no developmental biology. For my taste, a more inspirational book would make the links between the physical constraints described here and the biological interactions between living leaves and other organisms. Then Vogel could accurately entitle his book The Life of a Leaf.

The Life of a Leaf

By Steven Vogel

University of Chicago Press

320pp, £22.50.ISBN 9780226859392

Published 1 October 2012

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