Skip to main content

The Life of a Leaf

In its essence, science is a way of looking at and thinking about the world. In The Life of a Leaf, Steven Vogel illuminates this approach, using the humble leaf as a model. Whether plant or person, every organism must contend with its immediate physical environment, a world that both limits what organisms can do and offers innumerable opportunities for evolving fascinating ways of challenging those limits. Here, Vogel explains these interactions, examining through the example of the leaf the extraordinary designs that enable life to adapt to its physical world.

In Vogel’s account, the leaf serves as a biological everyman, an ordinary and ubiquitous living thing that nonetheless speaks volumes about our environment as well as its own. Thus in exploring the leaf’s world, Vogel simultaneously explores our own.

A companion website with demonstrations and teaching tools can be found here: /sites/vogel/index.html

320 pages | 47 color plates, 18 halftones, 10 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Biological Sciences: Botany, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History


 “I will never look at a leaf in the same way again—in reading this book I learned so much about how leaves work, and in doing so found I felt as if I had done a course in basic physics and engineering without realizing it. This is one of those books that powerfully, and often entertainingly, demystifies science, and as such should appeal well beyond the obvious plant sciences readership.”

Noel Kingsbury, author of Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding

“In The Life of a Leaf, after decades of research, teaching and general science writing, Steven Vogel has written his most accessible and wise book on the interactions of organisms with the physical world.  He is eminently successful in portraying the leaf as a ‘biological everyman, an ordinary and ubiquitous living thing that provides the subject for an exploration of our immediate physical world.’ Armchair science aficionados and educators will find his frequent do-it-yourself side essays particularly enjoyable and useful. An excellent book.”

David Lee, author of Nature’s Palette: The Science of Plant Color

“I am astounded by the breadth of the science that can be motivated by simple questions about a leaf or a tree. Refreshingly, the answers come from mechanics and engineering—not a DNA sequence in sight! An intelligent and highly readable introduction to important scientific principles in a familiar, human-sized context.”

Ian Stewart, author of In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

“Duke University biomechanist Steven Vogel capably demonstrates how a scientist can unite micro and macro perspectives in looking at the natural world. Using the leaf of a plant as his model system of life, he explores aspects of structure, function, and physiology while embedding specific questions in a broader evolutionary context. Thus, as we learn how a leaf (and the plant to which it is attached) uses various strategies to maintain appropriate water balance, we also learn why these strategies are important. Those larger points allow Vogel and his readers to reach beyond botany to the entire natural world. He mixes the principles of biology with those of physics to great effect, demonstrating the constraints the physical world places on living organisms and the limited options available to evolution. . . . His firsthand account of many of his own experiments, and the joy with which he recounts them, brings the scientific process to life.”

Publishers Weekly

"Vogel’s obvious enthusiasm for the subject and his skill at writing shine through with clarity and joy. "

Library Journal

“Any schoolchild who has ever plucked an interesting leaf and pressed it into a book for safekeeping will know there is something magical about these oddly shaped tree appendages. In this eclectic blend of science textbook and layman’s field guide, Duke University biology professor Steven Vogel takes the leaf as a model for probing nature’s often overlooked inner machinery. . . . Nature lovers and botanists will delight in the details.”


“Steven Vogel celebrates serendipitous discoveries and ideas, describing his own in detail, and shows the general reader just how exciting science can be. The central theme of The Life of a Leaf is extracting the extraordinary from the ordinary. In a way, Vogel’s view is that science is at its heart simple—and great fun. I couldn’t agree more.”


"The Life of a Leaf’s alliterative title, which is a hallmark of an author with the talent of a poet as well as the mind of a scientist, is characteristic of Steven Vogel. The title also illustrates how Vogel can take a seemingly innocuous object—a simple leaf—and use it to illustrate virtually every aspect of fluid and solid mechanics (with a considerable amount of chemistry thrown in for good measure)."

American Journal of Physics

“This book is a happy reminder that science can become much less daunting in the hands of an enthusiastic teacher.”

London Review of Books

Table of Contents

1  Starting the Story
2  Seeking Illumination
3  Diffusing Gases
4  Flowing Gases
5  Leaking Water
6  Raising Water
7  Interfacing with Air
8  Keeping Cool
9  Cleaning Surfaces
10  Staying Unfrozen
11  Staying Stiff and High
12  Surviving a Storm
13  Making and Maintaining
14  Winding It Up
List of Symbols, Abbreviations, and Conversions
References and Index of Citations
General Index

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press