FASHIONABLE NONSENSE

POST-MODERN INTELLECTUALS' ABUSE OF SCIENCE

This latest volley in the ugly squabble between scientists and literary intellectuals was a sensation in France. This book began when Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, sent a paper to Social Text, a leading journal of cultural studies. Ostensibly arguing that the theory of quantum gravitation supported postmodern critiques of science, the article was accepted and published. Sokal then, to great media fanfare, revealed it to be a hoax, assembled from scraps of academic jargon spiced with a few nonsensical references to math and physics. The editors of Social Text, eager to find support for their own ideas, had swallowed the parody without realizing that it made no sense. Now Belgian physicist Bricmont joins Sokal in a broader examination of how postmodern critics appropriate the language of science with an eye to discrediting it. This book dissects texts from the likes of Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Bruno Latour, showing how they have taken scientific concepts out of context, often using them as nearly meaningless tokens to impress an audience that cannot judge the validity of their arguments. Attempts to apply relativity theory to social issues have been around for decades, but in fact all make the same elementary error: forgetting that Einstein was describing not human society but the physical universe. The authors also take issue with “epistemic relativism”—the contention that science is one of many “ways of knowing,” with no particular claim to objective truth. This edition closely follows the French original but has been expanded to refer more fully to American writers and philosophers. An appendix reprints Sokal’s Social Text article, along with a commentary and some afterthoughts. While some of the issues here will seem esoteric to most American readers, this is a valuable and well-argued document in one of the key philosophical debates of our time.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 1998

ISBN: 0-312-19545-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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