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The Royal Society has been incubating and disseminating scientific illumination for 350 years, as Bryson (Shakespeare: The World as Stage, 2007, etc.) and his fellow contributors gracefully attest.

“The Royal Society has been doing interesting and heroic things…since 1660,” writes the author, and it is alive and well, still fulfilling its self-ordained mission “to assist and promote the accumulation of useful knowledge.” Or even just potentially useful knowledge, like Thomas Bayes’ theorem of inverse probabilities, which had no practical application at its creation but looked promising; the Society published and preserved it, much to the future gratitude of astrophysicists and stock-market analysts. The Society invented scientific publishing and peer review and demanded clarity in scientific expression, and it brought together great minds in a cosmopolitan milieu blind to class. A revolutionary institution, then, encouraging further revolutions, such as the seditions of Darwin (“Before Darwin,” writes Richard Dawkins, “it took a philosopher of the caliber of David Hume to rumble the illogic of ‘if a thing looks designed it must have been designed’ ”) and the metaphysics of Leibniz, whom Neal Stephenson notes “practised an ecumenicism that in a lesser mind would strike us as suspicious or even craven.” These essays from a gathering of bell-clear writers and thinkers—including, among others, Richard Fortey, Margaret Atwood and Martin Rees—cover a swath of the Society’s activities, from the mass appeal of ballooning to the rarefied precincts where mathematical rationalists duke it out with experimental empiricists. Throughout the book runs a sharp humanism, typified by the crystallographers, writes Georgina Ferry, with their interlocking stories about collegiality and women in science.

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Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-06-199976-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010



A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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