Ecological Mechanics: Principles of Life's Physical Interactions
Princeton University Press, £55.00
Physical principles determine many biological functions, adaptations and the carrying capacity of environments to support organisms, species and communities. Yet few biology or ecology graduates would consider mechanics theory one of their strengths. There are a limited number of texts on the fundamentals and application of mechanics written by ecologists, and fewer still that deal with topics beyond kinematics and fluid dynamics.
A sure and trusted hand is needed for confidence to travel into this unfamiliar territory. Mark Denny's comprehensive knowledge of both ecology and mechanics, and how dependent biological systems are on these physical laws, makes him a reliable guide.
The book starts with an introduction to basic principles of Newtonian mechanics, establishing a secure platform to launch from. These fundamentals are subsequently applied to transport processes including diffusion, locomotion and fluid mechanics. The clarity and simplicity with which these topics are applied to biological phenomena ensures that the reader quickly becomes aware of the relevance and potential to develop this approach to more complex ecological situations.
The necessary mathematics is taken in small steps, but the pages are not swamped with long-winded derivations (these are freely available online). There are statistical calculations to justify arguments of the influence of mechanical laws over whole habitats or ecosystems, with graphs to help visualise their significance.
The book progresses into thermal mechanics, drawing examples from desert plants, then materials science, explaining the gecko's defiance of gravity. The final section includes spectral analysis, the effects of scale and biology at the extremes. For further insight, there are regular references to authoritative texts that delve deeper, and online supplements and self-assessments that accompany each section.
Denny summarises the biological dependence of the mechanics at the end of each chapter and cautions readers on the dangers of oversimplifying when many factors are in play.
The blend of physics supported by the underlying maths, peppered with diverse biological examples, makes this book accessible reading and a most useful text. It will be valued by biologists seeking an understanding of mechanics and physical scientists applying their knowledge to large-scale living systems.
Alexander Waller CBiol MRSB