Provisionally titled The Genesis Quest, it will tell the story of the struggle to understand how life on Earth began: the long-standing mystery of what happened over 3.5 billion years ago to turn a dead ball of wet volcanic rock into a thriving biosphere. What did the first living thing look like, what was it made of, and how did it form?
Beginning in the 1920s in Soviet Russia, a small band of scientists has tried to figure out what happened. But from the 1960s onwards they have been riven by doubt and furious argument, because life is just so complicated that it has proved incredibly difficult to imagine how it could have got started. It's only now, almost 100 years after the first serious hypothesis was put forward, that we're starting to see a way past this impasse.
The story is both a scientific puzzle and a human story about ingenuity, rivalry, and staggering levels of bloody-mindedness. It has explosions, totalitarian governments, voyages to the bottom of the sea, Mars rovers, bizarre life forms and a man who could blow smoke out of his ears.
I've wanted to write a book since, well, since I was old enough to know what they were, so this is very much in the "dream come true" category of things. And I've been fascinated by how life might have begun ever since I first read a book on dinosaurs as a child and looked at a geological timescale - only to wonder what on Earth had been going on in that huge, blank expanse of time before the first animals showed up. I've spent 11 years as a journalist finding every excuse to delve into that question. Now I get to tell the full story and I can't wait for you all to be able to read it.
The book is going to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a division of The Orion Publishing Group (which is in turn part of Hachette). I'm hugely grateful to them, and in particular to my editor Paul Murphy, for taking me on. Massive thanks also to my agent Peter Tallack at The Science Factory.
Here is the full text of the announcement from W&N:
W&N BUY THE GENESIS QUEST BY FORMER EDITOR OF THE BBC EARTH WEBSITE
Paul Murphy, Editorial Director at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, has bought world rights in The Genesis Quest by Michael Marshall in a competitive auction from Peter Tallack at The Science Factory.
Some people have argued that life first appeared in the chemical-rich seas of the early Earth – the famous ‘primordial soup’. Others claim that the first organism was a simple molecule that could make copies of itself. Others still are convinced that life began in strange vents pumping hot water out of the sea floor. Over the years, each idea has attracted fervent believers who have promoted it with an almost religious enthusiasm.
But the quest to unravel life’s genesis is not just a story of big ideas: it is fundamentally a compelling story about people, rich in personalities, conflicts, and surprising twists and turns. Along the way it takes in some of the greatest discoveries in modern biology, from evolution and cells to DNA and life’s family tree.
Michael Marshall tells the complete story of a century-long intellectual adventure, and shows how the quest to understand life’s beginning is also a quest to discover its true nature, and by extension our place in the universe.
Paul Murphy said: ‘The origins of life on Earth is one of the big unanswered questions that science has to offer, right up there with what happened before the Big Bang and the true nature of gravity, and Michael Marshall is perfectly placed to write the first book to look at the subject in its entirety, from the first tentative theories put forward at the beginning of the twentieth century to the recent breakthroughs that suggest a solution may not be far away. He is a first-class science communicator, who has that rare ability to make complex concepts entertaining and accessible, and he will be a great addition to the list and our burgeoning popular-science publishing.’
Michael Marshall said: ‘I have been fascinated by the question of life’s origins since I was a child, when I first read about dinosaurs and other extinct animals and wondered what the first life looked like. The more I dug into the subject as a journalist, the more I realised that there was a gripping and intriguing story that hadn’t been told. I’m delighted to be working with Weidenfeld & Nicolson to bring the tale to a wider audience.’
About the Author
MICHAEL MARSHALL has a BA and MPhil in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in science communication from Imperial College, London. From 2007 to 2014 he worked at New Scientist as, among other things, a reporter and environment news editor. In 2014 he was appointed deputy editor of the newly launched BBC Earth website. The following year he became acting editor, producing features that attracted around three million readers every month. Under his editorship, the site won a string of awards, including twice winning the Webby Award for Best Science Website. In June 2017 he left the BBC to go freelance and write books.
The Genesis Quest by Michael Marshall will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in hardback, ebook and audio in August 2020.
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