Book Review: Extremes – Life, Death and the Limits of the Human Body

Book review - Extremes – Life, Death and the Limits of the Human Body by Dr Kevin Fong 

by Dr Kevin Fong

Hodder&Stoughton; £20 hardback; £8.99 paperback (due out 24 October 2013)

Review by Jim Killgore, publications editor, MDDUS

KEVIN Fong is best known from TV as the presenter of Extreme A&E and occasional one-o­ff documentaries and Horizon episodes. But he is also a doctor, lecturer in physiology and expert in space medicine, being co-director of the Centre for Aviation Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College London.

And it this core interest that is the subject of Extremes, his short but engaging new book which falls unashamedly into the category of popular science. In the text he expands on the notion that human life persists only within a narrow envelope of environmental conditions – temperature, pressure, atmospheric composition, gravity. Stray outside that envelope and our physiology rapidly loses the ability to cope. It is life at these boundaries that excites Fong’s interest.

In Extremes he develops the subject by first tracing his own career – astrophysics then medical school and later as a researcher in space medicine at NASA, in addition to his training as an anaesthetist. He then explores how the human body responds at extremes of heat and cold and pressure, in low gravity and in catastrophic trauma and serious illness.

No doubt Fong is a talented lecturer as physiological concepts are explained with elegant simplicity but what brings the text to life are the numerous tales of survival (or not) at extremes – a pilot in the Battle of Britain who escapes a fiery crash burnt beyond recognition, the Norwegian skier submerged in an icy river whose heart stopped for three hours, and Fong’s own experiences working as a doctor in A&E and in intensive care, flying in the notorious vomit comet or strapped in a high-G centrifuge at NASA.

These stories provide the context for an exploration of life, “its fragility, its fractal beauty and its resilience,” says Fong. The book is also about technology – “the theme of rapid advance, using technology and science to surround our physiology like a cocoon”.

Most of all though Extremes is a cracking read, a well-written science book rich with curiosity and wonder.