A spry exercise in popular science. Can you dig it?



Explosions, fires, asteroid collisions, predators: there are good reasons to go underground for critters of many descriptions, as this lightly written, pleasant survey reveals.

Many are the payoffs of knowing how to hide, as the old Monty Python gag goes. One is survival—not necessarily of the fittest but of those capable of digging the deepest. Some 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit the Earth, causing a huge wave of extinctions. As a result, writes paleontologist Martin (Geosciences/Emory Univ.; Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils, 2014, etc.), “all of the dinosaurs that did not have the good sense to be birds died.” Many of the critters that did survive the cataclysm had the good sense to dwell under the surface, where they had some measure of protection from the elements. Just so, Martin writes in a closing reverie, when Mount St. Helens went up in a plume of ash and fire 36 years ago, only 14 of the 55 mammal species on the mountain survived—and guess which ones? Yep: burrowing rodents, along with a tiny shrew. Martin, known for having discovered an ancient burrowing dinosaur, examines the world underground and the evolutionary advantages attendant in knowing how to get around down there (and, as he notes, even some birds burrow). The tone is amiable and unchallenging, pitched at the level of a nature documentary (“given that our fine feathered friends of today are descended from Mesozoic theropod dinosaurs, we must look to those dinosaurs for clues”). Though Martin sometimes stretches for relevance, as when he clumsily works The Shawshank Redemption into the proceedings, the narrative is generally straightforward and enjoyable. And given the undeniable advantages of sheltering where no one can see you—no one but snakes and alligators, that is—it seems well in this fraught world to read up on how pocket gophers have built their successful subterranean empires.

A spry exercise in popular science. Can you dig it?

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-68177-312-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Dec. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.



An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 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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