Heady reading from a polymath popularizer, but exhilarating nonetheless.

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NOISE

What’s bad and—surprise—what’s good about noise, explicated by fuzzy-logic/neural-network doyen Kosko (Fuzzy Thinking, 1993; The Fuzzy Future, 1999).

He begins with the bad: Noise as damager to hearing, trigger of stress and causer of birds and whales to change their tunes. He even provides chapter and verse on the laws governing public nuisance and trespass and proposes that cities generate noise maps in steps toward prevention. Then comes an exegesis on information theory, launched by Claude Shannon’s 1948 paper describing communication as the transmission of a signal, with the goal that the receiver gets the identical signal the sender sent. Shannon’s insight was to change analog signals, such as smoothly varying waves, into smoothly varying probabilities that the receiver gets the binary bit of a 1 versus a 0. So began the digital revolution, which challenged scientists to find better ways to preserve the integrity of the signal. To explain the various engineering feats used to improve signal-to-noise ratios, Kosko begins with the abstract: the concept of “white” noise, composed of all sound frequencies of the same magnitude. But since that would represent an infinite rage of frequencies requiring infinite energy to achieve, it is an ideal. Instead, variations of “colored” noise can be modeled, associated with probability curves. Examples include the leftover thermal noise of the Big Bang and the Brownian motion of molecules. Engineers get around unwanted noise by developing selective noise filters and using signal sampling methods. The kicker is that Kosko explains how injecting noise (within certain parameters) can actually improve some signal transmissions. Along the way, he tells the story of how Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil patented a method for coding signals using frequency “hopping” (perhaps because teenager Lamarr absorbed much from conversations her first husband had with Nazi officers). All this discourse builds into a last chapter on “stochastic resonance,” which the author defines as a noise benefit in nonlinear systems. At the nano scale, SR might have launched life, he suggests, via the Brownian motion of molecules driving molecular motors in primal cells.

Heady reading from a polymath popularizer, but exhilarating nonetheless.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2006

ISBN: 0-670-03495-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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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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