Utterly timely and readable, if not terribly comforting in the midst of the current pandemic.

THE RULES OF CONTAGION

WHY THINGS SPREAD—AND WHY THEY STOP

A geeky but fascinating exploration of the mathematics of things that go viral—not least of them viruses.

“If we want a better grasp of contagion, we need to account for its dynamic nature,” writes Kucharski, who does mathematical modeling of disease transmission at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He elaborates throughout: Contagion is constantly in motion as it courses through a population, finding its “susceptibles” and slowing down as the number of susceptibles declines. By the author’s capable account, the math works out pretty much the same whether applied to some negative force, such as a COVID-19 category virus or the concomitant financial crumbling that has surrounded it, or some positive force—e.g., a cultural innovation such as a pop song or dance move. Kucharski works his way through some key epidemiological ideas, including one advanced by the scientist who put it together that malaria was spread by mosquitos, earning him the Nobel Prize—although that scientist later protested that his larger achievement was formulating “general laws of epidemics.” These laws embody a mathematical formula that looks rather like an hourglass turned on its side, representing three key groups: the susceptible, the infectious, and the recovered. There are also the dead, of course, but they don’t move, as the dynamic model does. Kucharski takes his readers down provocative detours, such as the use of public-health models of disease transmission to examine how social networks figure in urban gun violence, with algorithms that take into account such things as “age gang affiliations, and prior arrests.” When things go viral, all kinds of interesting mathematical and real-world effects can happen, from stock market bubbles to horrific explosions of disease. Kucharski is there, calculator in hand, to suss it all out, and highly numerate readers will enjoy going along with the ride to guesstimate the R value of a contagion’s spread.

Utterly timely and readable, if not terribly comforting in the midst of the current pandemic.

Pub Date: July 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5416-7431-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: April 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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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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