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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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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THE GREAT BRIDGE

THE EPIC STORY OF THE BUILDING OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

It took 14 years to build and it cost 15 million dollars and the lives of 20 workmen. Like the Atlantic cable and the Suez Canal it was a gigantic embodiment in steel and concrete of the Age of Enterprise. McCullough's outsized biography of the bridge attempts to capture in one majestic sweep the full glory of the achievement but the story sags mightily in the middle. True, the Roeblings, father and son who served successively as Chief Engineer, are cast in a heroic mold. True, too, the vital statistics of the bridge are formidable. But despite diligent efforts by the author the details of the construction work — from sinking the caissons, to underground blasting, stringing of cables and pouring of cement — will crush the determination of all but the most indomitable reader. To make matters worse, McCullough dutifully struggles through the administrative history of the Brooklyn Bridge Company which financed and contracted for the project with the help of the Tweed Machine and various Brooklyn bosses who profited handsomely amid continuous allegations of kickbacks and mismanagement of funds. He succeeds in evoking the venality and crass materialism of the epoch but once again the details — like the 3,515 miles of steel wire in each cable — are tiresome and ultimately entangling. Workmanlike and thorough though it is, McCullough's history of the bridge has more bulk than stature.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1972

ISBN: 0743217373

Page Count: 652

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1972

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