An insightful history of everything that simplifies its complex subject as much as possible but no further.

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UNTIL THE END OF TIME

MIND, MATTER, AND OUR SEARCH FOR MEANING IN AN EVOLVING UNIVERSE

The author of several bestselling explorations of cutting-edge physics turns his attention to the cosmos, and readers will encounter his usual astute observations and analysis.

Greene (Physics and Mathematics/Columbia Univ.; The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, 2016) quotes from philosopher Bertrand Russell who, in a 1948 radio debate with a cleric, based his agnosticism on a scientific law: “the universe has crawled by slow stages to a somewhat pitiful result on this earth and is going to crawl by still more pitiful stages to a condition of universal death…if this is to be taken as evidence of purpose, I can only say that the purpose is one that does not appeal to me.” Russell is referring to the second law of thermodynamics, which states that “everything in the universe has an overwhelming tendency to run down, to degrade, to wither.” Greene explains that this is entropy, a term that is often popularly defined as a gradual slide into disorder. In the Big Bang, a supremely ordered low entropy kernel of energy expanded into the familiar universe, but entropy’s steady increase will lead to a uniformly disordered cold, lifeless emptiness—although not for a long time. The law allows plenty of local, highly organized, low entropy areas—galaxies, stars, civilization—whose existence is more than balanced by wasted energy they produce. Having announced his theme, Greene regularly returns to it in 11 chapters that begin at the Big Bang and proceed with deeply learned, sharp, never dumbed-down accounts of what scientists know about star formation, planet formation, life’s origins, evolution, consciousness, language, culture, and religion. The author concludes his engaging survey with what the future might hold for humans (very long life) and the universe (even longer); beyond a certain entropy, however, there will be no room for us.

An insightful history of everything that simplifies its complex subject as much as possible but no further.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-3167-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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