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The Long and the Short of It

The Science of Life Span and Aging

Everything that lives will die. That’s the fundamental fact of life. But not everyone dies at the same age: people vary wildly in their patterns of aging and their life spans—and that variation is nothing compared to what’s found in other animal and plant species. A giant fungus found in Michigan has been alive since the Ice Age, while a dragonfly lives but four months, a mayfly half an hour. What accounts for these variations—and what can we learn from them that might help us understand, or better manage, our own aging?

With The Long and the Short of It, biologist and writer Jonathan Silvertown offers readers a witty and fascinating tour through the scientific study of longevity and aging. Dividing his daunting subject by theme—death, life span, aging, heredity, evolution, and more—Silvertown draws on the latest scientific developments to paint a picture of what we know about how life span, senescence, and death vary within and across species. At every turn, he addresses fascinating questions that have far-reaching implications: What causes aging, and what determines the length of an individual life? What changes have caused the average human life span to increase so dramatically—fifteen minutes per hour—in the past two centuries? If evolution favors those who leave the most descendants, why haven’t we evolved to be immortal? The answers to these puzzles and more emerge from close examination of the whole natural history of life span and aging, from fruit flies, nematodes, redwoods, and much more.
 The Long and the Short of It pairs a perpetually fascinating topic with a wholly engaging writer, and the result is a supremely accessible book that will reward curious readers of all ages.

208 pages | 2 halftones, 1 table | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2013

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology, Natural History


"Jonathan Silvertown writes with grace and wit about one of the most important issues of our time. Drawing from the most up-to-date aging research and his personal and very sympathetic observations on the human condition, Silvertown makes the science of longevity accessible to the lay reader and insightful to the practitioner--a  book that will be a pleasurable and informative read for everyone."

Robert E. Ricklefs, author of The Economy of Nature

"Packed with cultural allusions and useful scientific shorthand."


"'Potatoes live longer than kings,' sighs ecologist Silvertown ... in this whimsical book on aging. Aging is a complex topic, but the author mixes art, science, and humor to brew a highly readable concoction, presenting one aging theory after another."

Publishers Weekly

"Silvertown has managed to distill the thousands of years of thought and research behind this and many related biologic questions into a small book so captivating and enlightening that--unusual for a volume packed with difficult scientific concepts--you will read it for pure pleasure, even though it provides remarkably few solid answers."

The New York Times Well Blog

"An ideal introduction to the science of ageing and mortality. Interwoven with history and poetry, his erudite and eloquent book concisely explains the mechanisms underlying the lifespan of organisms ranging from nematode worms and chickweed to humans and redwoods. Considering their fates in terms of genetics and environment, Silvertown explores the questions that have bedevilled our species for as long as we've had the language to ask: why do we get old and why do we die?"

New Scientist

Table of Contents

1. Death and Immortality: Destination

2. An Hourglass on the Run: Life Span

3. After Many a Summer: Aging

4. The Eternal Thing: Heredity

5. Green Age: Plants

6. The Visionary Solution: Natural Selection

7. Semele’s Sacrifice: Suicide

8. Live Fast, Die Young: Pace

9. Forever Young? Mechanisms

Appendix: Scientific Names of Species Mentioned in Text



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