Vogel's new book is meaty

July 11, 2002

Steven Vogel was suffering sore muscles -- ironic for a biologist who had just published a widely praised book on the science and history of muscles, from flies to humans. Ensconced in his comfortable office, the sinewy, fit scientist-author of Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle (Norton, 2002) revealed that he had been persuaded to walk down the Eiffel Tower. Ever the scientist, Vogel precisely explained the basis of his discomfort.

"You're exerting more force when you decelerate them when you accelerate, but the aerobic cost is so low you don't notice that you're doing much," said the James B. Duke Professor of Biology. "You don't notice it until afterwards," he winced.

Indeed, the phenomenon of sore muscles is only one scientific morsel Vogel offers in a smorgasbord of topics covered in his book, including that facts that

Vogel's book has so delighted its reviewers and readers that Science magazine was moved to comment in its review "Few among us can explain the often slightly mysterious physical phenomena so central to the biological world with such clarity and exuberance, and fewer yet leave us chuckling as we go."

Indeed, Vogel sprinkles a spice of humor amidst his explanations of muscle structure and function, and of muscle-powered machines. He analyzes the weapons, with which we've "muscled our way up the food chain." And in ruminating on cannibalism, he calculates that we'd have to consume too many of our brethren for cannibalism to be a sustainable nutritional source. Vogel said his humor is more than a diversion, but serves the very useful purpose of helping readers learn.

"There is a fine line between easing the reader's way through a subject that's unrelievedly technical, and being distracting," he said. And beyond helping people learn about the fascinations of the muscles that power their own bodies, Vogel has a broader educational purpose.

"The book is also an effort to show that biomechanics is a highly relevant field, because it's not considered fashionable stuff now," he said. "It's macroscopic, real-world and close to your intuitive reality. It's about as far as one can get from genomics, the currently hot area. But biomechanics answers questions that you are actually likely to ask in connection with your daily experience." Also, biomechanics and biology in general are highly relevant to our history, said Vogel.

"There is an awful lot that you cannot understand about human history and culture if you don't get back into our biology," he said. "We're organisms, so we deal with all the constraints that organisms come with, and it's very hard to sweep these under the rug." Many biologically-based controversies -- such as the theories of sociobiology that humans behave as biological machines -- carry considerable emotional baggage, said Vogel. So, perhaps the modest muscle can do some help carry the load in explaining how our biological origins matter.

"Maybe one should back off onto somewhat more neutral ground like biomechanics and muscle action, to make the case that we are constrained by being organisms," said Vogel. "And muscle makes a particularly good story that way, because right up until just recently it was just about the only engine we had." Vogel is also a champion of science as a delightful intellectual realm to be explored, and not just as an archipelago of the latest discoveries.

"I think the reward the science journalist offers to the reader is 'Hey, look what those guys did!'" said Vogel. "And the reward I am trying to offer is 'Hey, now I understand that!' So, I'm not talking breakthroughs. I don't care whether something was done 300 years ago or 3000 years ago, if it illuminates something in your everyday life. I'm not sure there are a lot of breakthroughs described in this book. But there are surprises."

In fact, Vogel himself came upon his share of surprises when researching the book -- from the ubiquity of treadmills to the reasons why horses didn't replace oxen as beasts of burden.

"I had no idea that there was this enormous history of treadmill technology for making animals and humans produce power without actually going anywhere. It was a surprise that there were so many devices for lifting water and so forth, powered by animals and people running in circles and on treadwheels.

"The history of ox versus horse also got more interesting than I expected," he said. "Usually, one technology displaces another for one reason or another. But horse technology didn't displace ox technology. When people learned to harness horses about 1200 years ago, the oxen persisted, and they're still in use in many parts of the world -- or were until very recently."

Like any good teacher, Vogel is also adept at using demonstrations to make his educational point. Sitting in his office is a model of a ballista, an ancient weapon that, full-sized, could hurl a 90-pound rock 400 yards.

"It's an enormously interesting weapon because it was probably the most efficient muscle-using machine of antiquity, he explained, adding that he has replaced the cow-tendons used in the real weapons with longer-lasting but less efficient nylon rope. To dramatize his point about the importance of muscles in warfare, Vogel delights in using his model to hurl Styrofoam balls about bookstores, just as he throws out to his audience fascinating scientific ideas.

Duke University

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