An ardent message about environmental peril.

PLASTIC

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

A personal and historical exploration of how plastic blighted the planet.

Walking her dog one day, poet and essayist Cobb found a piece of black plastic—the inside of a car’s fender—outside her yard, a jarring discovery that inspired this wide-ranging meditation on war, waste, consumerism, racism, love, and grief. Weaving memoir, history, and anecdote, the author considers the political, cultural, and especially ecological implications of plastic, which, since it was patented in 1907, now fills nearly every corner of the planet. “Featureless, flawless, eternal,” and made into everything from buttons to atomic bombs, plastic has become Cobb’s obsession. “I wanted it to speak to me. I wanted it to tell me something about how to live. How to live now, on this planet, in this real life, as a member of the human species.” Working at the Environmental Defense Fund, Cobb spends her days conveying information about “planetary trauma and emergency,” a job that she does “to make others feel sorrow and concern, but not despair.” She must feed their hope “that money can heal the world. That by giving some of their money away, the privileged can help to stem the tide of damage, waste, and plunder embedded in our global economy.” But Cobb is acutely aware that systemic change is the planet’s only hope. Tracking her carbon footprint when she flies or drives, the author bears striking witness to destruction: Birds and fish die from plastic detritus; decades after World War II, the stomach of an albatross was perforated by a plastic shard from a bombing raid. Cobb also shows how Black communities are especially vulnerable. In Freeport, Texas, home of Dow Chemical, cancers are on the rise; in Mossville, Louisiana, refineries poison land and water. “Most of the plastic ever made remains with us,” writes the author, “circulating through water, living bodies, and the atmosphere—and the waste keeps coming.”

An ardent message about environmental peril.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-64362-038-1

Page Count: 340

Publisher: Nightboat Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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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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