A TALE OF TWO CONTINENTS

A PHYSICIST'S LIFE IN A TURBULENT WORLD

The author of a highly regarded biography of Albert Einstein (Subtle Is the Lord, not reviewed; Einstein Lived Here, 1994) sums up his own life. Pais is clearly temperamentally unsuited to discuss intimate matters; what he does instead is to chronicle his passage through momentous times, describing his experiences as a privileged onlooker. Growing up in the blue-collar Jewish community of Amsterdam, Pais encountered no prejudice and, because of the exciting developments going on in quantum mechanics, determined upon a career as an experimental physicist. Then the Nazis invaded Holland, and Jews were slowly marginalized and then sent to ``labor camps.'' Some were able to flee the country and some, like Pais, went into hiding, Pais stayed underground nearly three years before being spotted by an SS officer and arrested. Luckily, his imprisonment began just as the war was ending, and Pais was spared the fate of Anne Frank, who had been concealed with her family nearby. While in hiding Pais had kept up his study of physics, and when the war ended, his career quickly flowered. He worked for some time with Niels Bohr and offers a lengthy portrait both of the man and his philosophy, particularly as it relates to the reconciliation of classical and quantum physics. He knew Robert Oppenheimer and describes his sufferings during the McCarthy hearings. He also offers stories of Einstein, Sakharov, Heisenberg, and, because his interests extended beyond the laboratory and the classroom, of such acquaintances as Pablo Casals and George Kennan. He chronicles the time he spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and at Rockefeller University, and speaks usefully about his research and about the writing of the Einstein biography. Authoritative and valuable historically, though because of Pais's remoteness, not widely appealing as an autobiography. (24 b&w photos)

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-691-01243-1

Page Count: 520

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1997

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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