Satisfying soul food for your inner geek: an enjoyable tour of science fact and fiction by a writer who obviously revels in...

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TEN BILLION TOMORROWS

HOW SCIENCE FICTION TECHNOLOGY BECAME REALITY AND SHAPES THE FUTURE

Space travel. Time travel. Travels in other dimensions. Microwaves. Whatever smacks of the future is the product of science—but imagined by science fiction first.

Science journalist Clegg’s (Final Frontier: The Pioneering Science and Technology of Exploring the Universe, 2014, etc.) book begins a little inauspiciously, inasmuch as he allows that while everyone else in the world was paying attention to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he was glued to the TV watching the premiere of Doctor Who. Trained in physics but steeped in sci-fi, the author takes readers on an amiable stroll into worlds that once seemed improbable, reminding them that science fiction, by definition, has to have some grounding in reality and “requires at least a hat tip toward what is physically possible.” What is possible shifts and moves in time, of course. Early on, Clegg quotes a complaint lodged by Jules Verne against the young upstart H.G. Wells, grumbling that while his space travelers get to the moon by cannonball, Wells “goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does not obey the law of gravitation.” Clegg sometimes stretches to allow cool stuff into his narrative. One doubts that Roger Bacon really imagined that a wall of talking brass could be constructed around England, but yet we have home burglar alarms; chalk it up to science fiction’s “leaps of faith,” which permitted such things as time travel well before Einstein had figured out the math. Still, Clegg reminds us, check your watch: “Leave the ship flying for a good length of time,” he warns would-be rocketeers, “and a big time differential with the Earth will build up.” He adds, elsewhere, that if the details aren’t exactly right in the imaginative literature, never fear: “Science fiction may have got the exact means…wrong, but the general concept is all too possible.”

Satisfying soul food for your inner geek: an enjoyable tour of science fact and fiction by a writer who obviously revels in both.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-05785-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2015

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

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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