An intriguing account of the ongoing search for alien civilizations whose failure to appear may be a warning for humans to...

LIGHT OF THE STARS

ALIEN WORLDS AND THE FATE OF THE EARTH

An engaging effort “to tell a different story about ourselves and our fate among the stars and their many worlds.”

With the 21st-century discovery that planets circle most stars in our galaxy, books on alien life are pouring off the presses. In his latest, Frank (Astrophysics/Univ. of Rochester; About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, 2011), co-founder of NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, focuses on its implication for earthly life, crafting one of the best introductions to the genre. Since ancient times, writers have speculated about alien civilizations, but a famous scientist once asked a disturbing question: Where are they? On billions of planets over billions of years, surely advanced societies exist. High school math proves that any civilization capable of building ships that travel at 10 percent the speed of light will colonize our galaxy in 650,000 years. With the odds that humans are unique approaching zero, Frank introduces an unsettling idea: Perhaps advanced societies develop routinely and then quickly self-destruct. All life extracts energy from the environment, which changes that environment, often for the worst. But nonhuman life works slowly. Primitive bacteria extracted energy and produced oxygen as a waste product. This eventually killed them, but it took a few billion years. Our technically advanced society became possible when we developed spectacularly great sources of energy. Fifty years ago, researchers worried about nuclear Armageddon, but worries about human-induced climate change and environmental destruction have taken priority. Plenty of species and human cultures—Easter Island, Maya, Norsemen on Greenland—have crashed after exhausting their resources. As Frank writes, we must “stop seeing civilizations like our own as standing apart from the world that gave them birth. All civilizations, including those that might occur on other worlds, are expressions of their planet’s evolutionary history.”

An intriguing account of the ongoing search for alien civilizations whose failure to appear may be a warning for humans to get their act together.

Pub Date: June 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-60901-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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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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