Diverting and often insightful, but ten minutes later you could be hungry for knowledge all over again.



The Astronomy columnist (Cosmic Adventure, 1998, etc.) invites readers to prowl their neighborhoods in search of everyday phenomena, then sit back and let him explain them—as well as the rest of the Universe.

Berman’s choices, based on his collected columns, are far-flung and randomly sequenced. They run the gamut from those strange puddles in the road on hot days that disappear when you get to them (aha: refraction!) through the double rings around the Sun (if you’re ever lucky enough to see them) to the panic-inducing suggestion that the mitochondria parasitically inhabiting our brains could be an alien life form that arrived eons ago. Not realistic? Then consider, the author further suggests, that every one of the 240 muons that pass completely through your body every second has the potential to carom off a bit of genetic material and cause a spontaneous cancer. The disparate facts and ideas come fast and furious, generally revealed by Berman with a little hyperbole here, a flourish or two there, and even the occasional bona fide cocktail-party aphorism like “without entropy, time need not exist.” Exhausted, bored, or terrified readers would have little trouble putting this down and picking it up again a few days, or even years later. Phenomena junkies will of course be grateful for being teased into finding out why trees cast blue shadows on snow, but not all will stay in tow as the author duels in an edited transcript with an unnamed cosmologist on why black holes simply “can’t be created in our reality.” The author’s enthusiasm, naturally, becomes most evident in astronomical and cosmological areas, and his treatment of meteors, asteroids, and debris of various origin that bombard the earth day, while not particularly alarmist, may convert a few TV watchers into sky watchers. “It never stops,” Berman notes. “Several stray meteors will pass within a few dozen miles of you during the next sixty minutes.”

Diverting and often insightful, but ten minutes later you could be hungry for knowledge all over again.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2004

ISBN: 0-8050-7328-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2003

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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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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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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