Provides plenty of gee-whiz moments, but Zimmer needn’t have used every single index card from his formidable research.

MICROCOSM

E. COLI AND THE NEW SCIENCE OF LIFE

The author explains why that bug that lives in your intestine has been a bonanza for biologists.

Though the toxic strain of E. coli is the one that makes news—usually thanks to contaminated food—many strains are weak, harmless and/or helpful, notes seasoned science writer Zimmer (Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, 2005, etc.). Newborns are infected with E. coli from birth, and after settling in the gut, the bacteria forms an ecosystem with other bugs that helps us digest foods, make useful proteins and fend off pathogens. The bug’s main claim to fame, however, is the debt owed by genetics and the biotech industry to E. coli and the viruses (bacteriophages) that infect it. Ingenious experiments by a constellation of Nobelists including Salvador Luria, Max Delbrück and Joshua Lederberg established the startling fact that bacteria have sex; that’s how they exchange genes and spread useful mutations such as resistance to antibiotics. The phages that infect E. coli can contribute their genes as well. Zimmer goes on at length to describe how E. coli adapts to life’s vicissitudes. Too hot an environment? Make heat-shock proteins. Only lactose and not glucose for food? Switch on genes that make lactose-digesting enzymes. Need to get away fast? Grow flagella. And more. In somewhat confusing order, the author piles on descriptions and digressions into feedback circuitry, bacterial sensors, bacterial and human evolution, specialization of bacteria within colonies and cooperation across species in aggregates of bacteria in “biofilms.” He explains how E. coli became the darling of the biotech industry when geneticists realized that they could splice human genes into the bacteria and generate useful products like insulin. He rehashes the controversies over recombinant DNA and philosophizes about current concerns regarding genetically modified crops and cross-species hybridization. He ends with an excursion into astrobiology and what forms life might take Out There.

Provides plenty of gee-whiz moments, but Zimmer needn’t have used every single index card from his formidable research.

Pub Date: May 6, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-375-42430-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2008

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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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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