Ingenious, often complex insights from an expert.


The prolific science writer offers another illuminating education on many scientific phenomena. “It would be impossible to cope with the world,” writes the author, “if we didn’t have patterns…that inform us of how to deal with, say, an apple or a light switch, so that we don’t have to start from scratch each and every time.” After proposing this theme, Clegg delivers 10 isolated essays on topics ranging from the recognizable (DNA, periodic table) to the arcane (number lines, Feynman diagrams). Teachers traditionally portray evolution as a tree; a primitive life form, the trunk, evolves into numerous, more complex organisms, the thinner branches. In reality, this is not what happens. The “branches” often thicken, double back, and become simpler. Fifty years ago, biologists offered a more accurate description in the form of a cladogram, which merely shows in what order a species split from a common ancestor. This works even when scientists haven’t found that ancestor. Regarding more cosmic matters, Clegg shows that while everyone can picture length, width, and depth, three of Einstein’s four dimensions, adding time seems nonsensical. Enter Einstein’s math professor, Hermann Minkowski, who developed an ingenious diagram that shows how time and space are related and inseparable. After the Big Bang, the universe was so hot that only charged particles such as protons and electrons existed. Charged particles absorb photons (i.e. light), so the early universe was dark. After 380,000 years of expansion and cooling, most charged particles combined to form electrically neutral atoms. Suddenly photons could travel, and the cosmos filled with light. These light photons expanded and cooled along with the universe, and today, 13.8 billion years later, they shine from everywhere as the cosmic microwave background. First detected in 1964, they reveal the earliest structures of the universe. This is not TV science; Clegg presents difficult concepts—e.g., infinity is not a number; genes form only a trivial part of a chromosome—but there are satisfying rewards to science-inclined readers. Ingenious, often complex insights from an expert.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-262-54286-9

Page Count: 224

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2021

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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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.


Two science podcasters answer their mail.

In this illustrated follow-up to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe (2017), Cham, a cartoonist and former research associate and instructor at Caltech, and Whiteson, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, explain the basic science behind subjects that seem to preoccupy the listeners of their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. Most of the questions involve physics or astrophysics and take the form of, is such-and-such possible?—e.g., teleportation, alien visitors, building a warp drive, entering a black hole). The authors emphasize that they are answering as scientists, not engineers. “A physicist will say something is possible if they don’t know of a law of physics that prevents it.” Thus, a spaceship traveling fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time is not forbidden by the laws of physics, but building one is inconceivable. Similarly, wormholes and time travel are “not known to be impossible”—as are many other scenarios. Some distressing events are guaranteed. An asteroid will strike the Earth, the sun will explode, and the human race will become extinct, but studies reveal that none are immediate threats. Sadly, making Mars as habitable as Earth is possible but only with improbably futuristic technology. For those who suspect that we are living in a computer simulation, the authors describe what clues to look for. Readers may worry that the authors step beyond their expertise when they include chapters on the existence of an afterlife or the question of free will. Sticking closely to hard science, they deliver a lucid overview of brain function and the debate over the existence of alternate universes that is unlikely to provoke controversy. The authors’ work fits neatly into the recently burgeoning market of breezy pop-science books full of jokes, asides, and cartoons that serve as introductions to concepts that require much further study to fully understand.

A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18931-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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