A roaming, eye-opening, insightful, and literate collection of science writing.



Complex science made accessible.

Novelist, physicist, and popular science writer Lightman gathers together essays—some previously published in the New Yorker, Guernica, the New York Times, and other publications—that discuss scientists, their imaginations, and their discoveries. “Spectacular things are going on out there,” he writes, “whether we notice or not.” As in his previous books of both nonfiction and fiction, Lightman is once again our helpful, genial guide to the mysteries of the universe. He begins with Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was “practically unique in being a humanist and a scientist at once.” What the author finds most interesting about Pascal is his “imagination of the…infinitely small and the infinitely large.” In “What Came Before the Big Bang?” Lightman notes that physicists believe the “entire universe we see today was far smaller than a single atom,” and somehow time emerged—or did time already exist? He talks with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll about the future, with its “condition of increasing mess,” and the past, with its “increasing tidiness,” in terms of the “improbable smoothness of the observable universe.” Lightman wonders if space goes on “forever, to infinity?” Or is it “finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere”? In the essay “On Nothingness,” the author addresses the concept of “empty space” while “Atoms” speculates about the existence of quarks and “extremely tiny one-dimensional ‘strings’ of energy.” Edwin Hubble’s 1929 discovery that the universe is expanding is “probably the most important cosmic discovery of all time,” and “we expect that the universe will keep expanding forever.” Elsewhere, Lightman writes that it’s “almost certain that life exists elsewhere in the universe.” Discussing visionary physicist Andrei Linde’s concept of a “map of the universes,” Lightman offers up this head-spinner: It’s “possible” that there are “multiple universes, each infinite in extent.” Some “might even have different dimensions than our own universe.”

A roaming, eye-opening, insightful, and literate collection of science writing.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4901-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020

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A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

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Building on his lysergically drenched book How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan looks at three plant-based drugs and the mental effects they can produce.

The disastrous war on drugs began under Nixon to control two classes of perceived enemies: anti-war protestors and Black citizens. That cynical effort, writes the author, drives home the point that “societies condone the mind-changing drugs that help uphold society’s rule and ban the ones that are seen to undermine it.” One such drug is opium, for which Pollan daringly offers a recipe for home gardeners to make a tea laced with the stuff, producing “a radical and by no means unpleasant sense of passivity.” You can’t overthrow a government when so chilled out, and the real crisis is the manufacture of synthetic opioids, which the author roundly condemns. Pollan delivers a compelling backstory: This section dates to 1997, but he had to leave portions out of the original publication to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration from his door. Caffeine is legal, but it has stronger effects than opium, as the author learned when he tried to quit: “I came to see how integral caffeine is to the daily work of knitting ourselves back together after the fraying of consciousness during sleep.” Still, back in the day, the introduction of caffeine to the marketplace tempered the massive amounts of alcohol people were drinking even though a cup of coffee at noon will keep banging on your brain at midnight. As for the cactus species that “is busy transforming sunlight into mescaline right in my front yard”? Anyone can grow it, it seems, but not everyone will enjoy effects that, in one Pollan experiment, “felt like a kind of madness.” To his credit, the author also wrestles with issues of cultural appropriation, since in some places it’s now easier for a suburbanite to grow San Pedro cacti than for a Native American to use it ceremonially.

A lucid (in the sky with diamonds) look at the hows, whys, and occasional demerits of altering one’s mind.

Pub Date: July 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-29690-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 14, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2021

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A straightforward, carefully detailed presentation of how ``fruit comes from flowers,'' from winter's snow-covered buds through pollination and growth to ripening and harvest. Like the text, the illustrations are admirably clear and attractive, including the larger-than-life depiction of the parts of the flower at different stages. An excellent contribution to the solidly useful ``Let's-Read-and-Find-Out-Science'' series. (Nonfiction/Picture book. 4-9)

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 1992

ISBN: 0-06-020055-3

Page Count: 32

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1991

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