An expert primer on the history of everything.



A geologist skillfully condenses the history of the Earth.

A Harvard professor of natural history and Earth and planetary sciences, Knoll begins when the Earth coalesced from dust and rocks circling the sun. Animals more complex than bacteria do not appear until the halfway point of the book, but few readers will complain. Good evidence for the Earth’s age did not appear until the 20th century, when measuring the decay of radioactive uranium revealed its age at 4.6 billion years. Rocks raining down generated enough heat to keep the Earth molten. By the time it cooled around 4 billion years ago, two substances we take for granted, water and oxygen, were missing. Water arrived from meteorites, which continue to fall, although less often than in previous millennia. Knoll engagingly recounts the theories of how life began along with the startling fact that evidence of microbial life appeared soon after the Earth cooled. It’s possible that life is not a lucky accident but inevitable once certain conditions are present. In the absence of oxygen, primitive organisms lived off alternate sources of energy such as sulfur or iron, which existed in the oceans and hot springs. More than 1 billion years passed before cyanobacteria evolved to extract energy from sunlight and water. This process of photosynthesis produced oxygen, leading eventually to the “Great Oxygenation Event” that marginalized older life forms but jump-started evolution because respiration using oxygen yields far more energy. After another 3 billion years, more complex organisms appeared. Early animals date from 500 million to 600 million years ago. Fish appeared at around 450 million years ago and began walking on land 100 million years later. In later chapters, Knoll speeds up the narrative but maintains a focus on geology as he proceeds through dinosaurs, mammals, continent migration, and catastrophic mass extinctions. Of course, the author’s study of humans dominates the closing section, which recounts hominid evolution and the dismal details of how we are making a mess of things.

An expert primer on the history of everything.

Pub Date: April 27, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-06-285391-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Custom House/Morrow

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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An enthusiastic appreciation of a spectacular astrophysical entity.


A short, lively account of one of the oddest and most intriguing topics in astrophysics.

Levin, a Guggenheim fellow and professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College, knows her subject well, but her goal is appreciation as much as education, and there is much to admire in a black hole. Before Einstein, writes the author, scientists believed that the force of gravity influenced the speed of moving objects. They also knew that light always travels at exactly the speed of light. This combination made no sense until 1915, when Einstein explained that gravity is not a force but a curving of space (really, space-time) near a body of matter. The more massive the matter, the greater it curves the space in its vicinity; other bodies that approach appear to bend or change speed when they are merely moving forward through distorted space-time. Einstein’s equations indicated that, above a certain mass, space-time would curve enough to double back on itself and disappear, but this was considered a mathematical curiosity until the 1960s, when objects that did just that began turning up: black holes. Light cannot emerge from a black hole, but it is not invisible. Large holes attract crowds of orbiting stars whose density produces frictional heating and intense radiation. No writer, Levin included, can contain their fascination with the event horizon, the boundary of the black hole where space-time doubles back. Nothing inside the event horizon, matter or radiation, can leave, and anything that enters is lost forever. Time slows near the horizon and then stops. The author’s discussions of the science behind her subject will enlighten those who have read similar books, perhaps the best being Marcia Bartusiak’s Black Hole (2015). Readers coming to black holes for the first time will share Levin’s wonder but may struggle with some of her explanations.

An enthusiastic appreciation of a spectacular astrophysical entity.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-65822-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Aug. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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


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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