A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill.



British scholar and writer Foster delivers a spirited romp through human history and finds our time wanting in many ways.

Building on Being a Beast (2016), in which he looked at the world through the viewpoints of badgers, a fox, and other critters, Foster imagines a humdrum deep past in which not much happened until around the Stone Age, when some mysterious spark fired our imaginations. As he writes, “God is good and favours the Upper Palaeolithic,” and its inhabitants responded to that goodness by painting glorious works of art in hard-to-get-to places, placing their dead in carefully constructed graves, and building cultures. That age of metaphor and creation, of “self-creation and self-knowing,” came crashing down in the Neolithic, which brought us agriculture and urbanization. “In the Neolithic,” Foster laments, “we started to get boring and miserable,” controlled in all sorts of ways. Instead of moving through the land, knowing what to hunt and what to gather and paying close attention to our surroundings, we became machines of labor. The author offers a provocative, pleasing meditation on the different ways in which the two stages of human evolution made use of fire—one to create, one to destroy—and he cleverly links the Neolithic world of overcrowding, forced labor, taxation, epidemic disease, and other woes to our time: “Continue synergistically for 12,000 years or so, and you have us.” This is a magpie book full of intriguing anthropological sketches. On one page, Foster notes that a circular house “is an intrinsically democratic space,” and on another, that the Romans were more interested in nature than were the Greeks. Throughout, the author makes connections between minds past and present with the “more-than-human world.” It’s a book that fits neatly into the growing library of modern British natural history writing, alongside the best of Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, and Roger Deakin.

A splendid assessment of the many ways there are to be a person, for good and ill.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-78371-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 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. 2, 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. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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