I’ve hit “send” on the final manuscript files for my popular science book on biophysics. The last round of revisions and edits took all the time I could spare over the past three months, and lots of time that I couldn’t!
I should write a new, up to date summary of the book, but this post isn’t it. (My old posts are here: March 2020, July 2020, and Dec. 2020.) The very short description: “Universal physical principles underlie the dazzling variety we see in the living world. In So Simple A Beginning, we explore science’s new understanding of the physicality of life, which illuminates natural wonders spanning scales from viruses to elephants and spawns technologies for altering cells, organs, and even whole organisms.” I created a lot of illustrations, mostly pencil or watercolor. (The watercolors are my favorites.) You can sign up to be notified when it’s available here.
Here, I thought I’d present the solution to the Mystery of the Missing Title. The title went through many changes and was one of the last things to be finalized. Early ideas, from 2017 and before, included:
- The Stuff of Life
- Life, in Pieces
- Decoding Life
- Building Life — this lasted over a year, though I disliked it, especially since it could be read as a guide to the ecology of creatures that live in human-made structures.
- Sculpting Life — this reigned for much of 2020. It was the working title of the manuscript sent to the publisher’s external readers.
I wasn’t thrilled by any of these, and struggled to come up with something better.
I gathered titles of other nonfiction nature / biology / physics books for inspiration. Staring at them, common themes emerge.
There are the ones that promise brevity:
- A Short History of Nearly Everything
- A Brief History of Time
- A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
- Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
- H is for Hawk
- Silent Spring
There’s history (not necessarily brief):
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
- The Gene: An Intimate History
There are clever or striking phrases:
- The Selfish Gene
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
- The Self-Made Tapestry
- The Invention of Nature
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat
There are allusions or quotes:
- Of Wolves and Men
- I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
There’s the allure of secrets and hidden mysteries:
- The Hidden Life of Trees
- The Secret Lives of Bats: My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals
So Simple A Beginning
In December I thought of two new ideas:
- The Secret Life of Life — I was less fond of this one, but it does feature secrecy and alliteration.
- Vital Forces — I liked this one, though I don’t explicitly deal with the concept of force and its technical definition in the book. Still, I think people associate forces with physics, so the connection works. There is, unfortunately, already a book with this title (though the subtitle would be different): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2201037.Vital_Forces — I haven’t read it or heard of it before.
Thankfully, my editor (Jessica Yao, Princeton University Press) came up with a far better idea. She noted that at the end of On the Origin of Species, Darwin writes:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
In addition to being elegant, the phrase “so simple a beginning” connects to a theme of my book. As I write in the Introduction: “I hope to convince you that Nature has a grandeur even deeper than what Darwin discerned. Rather than a contrast between the fixed, clockwork laws of physics and the generation of endless and beautiful forms, the two are inextricably linked.”
The title, then, is So Simple a Beginning: How Four Physical Principles Shape Our Living World.
I’m not thrilled by subtitles, and I’d prefer not to have one, but that’s how things are done these days. But overall, I’m delighted by the title and by my editor’s excellent idea.
I’m deeply pleased to have completed the manuscript. Especially following the last round of revisions, I think it holds together well, with themes that permeate the whole book, and drawings/paintings that I like. (And a few that I don’t like, but that I got tired of revisiting.) It is large: 81,500 words (without references), 93,500 words (with references), 119 illustrations (44 gray, 75 color). The Word document, double-spaced without illustrations, is 297 pages.
The next steps, barring new editorial-level mandates, are mostly out of my hands: things like preparation of the page proofs and cover, and marketing plans. At some point, I’ll have to make an index. The expected publication date is early 2022 — a long time from now! (I likely can’t compete with the flood of books that come out near the end of a calendar year.)
… is one that I scrapped recently, as neither particularly necessary nor particularly good. It’s Notch and Delta proteins, protruding from cells communicating with one another.
— Raghuveer Parthasarathy, March 1, 2021