BILLIONS AND BILLIONS

THOUGHTS ON LIFE AND DEATH AT THE BRINK OF THE MILLENNIUM

The final book by the late science populist (The Demon-Haunted World, 1996, etc.) shows him in his role as one of the finest exponents of science for the general public. These brief pieces apply scientifc knowledge to the exploration of essential questions about the environment and the world's future in a disarmingly clear and charming manner. Sagan begins by pointing out that the phrase ``billions and billions,'' indelibly associated with him in the popular mind, is in fact a parody of his style invented by Johnny Carson—then he segues into a discussion of large numbers and scientific notation. In similar fashion, he extrapolates from TV sports to an examination of our species's hunter-gatherer origins, and from the fragile ecology of a small aquarium to that of our entire planet. Sagan's concerns always extend beyond a simple examination of whatever scientific principle he begins with; he is always ready to look into the human consequences of the ideas he discusses. Thus, a discussion of how exponential numbers grow evolves into examinations of population growth and the spread of AIDS. Sagan spends some time reconciling the missions of science and religion: Both relate to the ultimate welfare of humanity, and each, he argues, has something to learn from the other. Chapters on moral issues of global importance (such as the degradation of the environment), and reflections on our accomplishments as a species, including the prolonging of human life, the discovery and manipulation of the atom, travel into space, and unprecedented insights into the nature of the universe, attempt to capture an even longer perspective. In the final chapter, written after Sagan's discovery of his fatal cancer, he looks death in the face and declares his willingness to fight it. A poignant afterword by his wife, Ann Druyan, ends the book. Sagan was upbeat to the last, and a true believer in humanity's ability to transcend its worst impulses. This book captures his spirit at its best.

Pub Date: June 11, 1997

ISBN: 0-679-41160-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1997

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more