Like a nonfiction National Treasure with myriads of Nicholas Cages darting around—in a good way. Enlightening Enlightenment...

CHASING VENUS

THE RACE TO MEASURE THE HEAVENS

In the late 18th century, European astronomers scurried about the globe measuring the transit of Venus, hoping, at last, to learn the size of our universe.

Until this busy narrative, Wulf had turned her eyes more earthward with three previous outings about gardens (The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, 2011, etc.). Here she glides easily into the heavens, where she clearly explains how Venus’ transit across the sun, which occurs every 105 years (and each time does so twice, at eight-year intervals—one will occur in June 2012), gave Enlightenment astronomers a chance to figure out such things as the distance between the earth and the sun. Their 1769 calculation—transit-derived—was quite close. The author follows the two international attempts, in 1761 and 1769, to accomplish the measurements from various global viewing points, describing in grim detail the vast difficulties of travel and communication, the geopolitical complications (wars didn’t help) and the various personalities of potentates and scientists that characterized the endeavor. The 1761 transit occurred before everyone were sufficiently ready, and the measurements were disappointing; 1769 was better—though poor Guillaume Le Gentil of France, who’d spent nine years devoted to the projects, saw only clouds at his observatory in Pondicherry, India. Worse, Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche died of typhus only days after his successful recordings. The author notes the imprecision of the instruments, the difficulties of determining precisely when the dark spot of Venus began and ended its journey across the sun’s yellow wafer and the arduous treks Enlightenment men (yes, all men) undertook to Lapland, Tahiti, Hudson Bay and Baja. More than 100 pages of back matter reveal the sturdy research undergirding the lively narrative.

Like a nonfiction National Treasure with myriads of Nicholas Cages darting around—in a good way. Enlightening Enlightenment fare.

Pub Date: May 5, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-70017-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2012

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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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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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