An unflattering yet outstanding biography of a giant of 20th-century physics.

HAWKING HAWKING

THE SELLING OF A SCIENTIFIC CELEBRITY

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) was the world’s most famous scientist for the last 30 years of his life. This engrossing, sometimes unsettling account shows why.

NYU journalism professor Seife writes that Hawking converted cosmology from a backwater to “the most exciting field in physics, an area that was (and still is) generating Nobel Prize after Nobel Prize for transforming our understanding of how the universe came to be.” In his 1965 doctoral thesis, Hawking proved that the Big Bang, which gave birth to the universe, had to be an infinitely small point where the laws of physics don’t apply. This “singularity theorem” ignited his career. During the 1970s and ’80s, he produced spectacular, highly mathematical discoveries on black holes and the early universe that dazzled colleagues. Due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, his strength began declining in the 1960s, and by the ’80s, he was entirely paralyzed and unable to talk. Britain’s National Health Service paid basic medical expenses, but only a rich man could have afforded the army of attendants that allowed him to live at home, work, communicate, socialize, and travel the world. Fortunately, he had become an international celebrity and author of the blockbuster 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time. This eased his financial troubles at the time, but they persisted for the remainder of his life. Many of his subsequent books were “carelessly edited” knockoffs designed to make money, and Hawking often endorsed products in exchange for cash. As Seife demonstrates, the public and a worshipful media ignored his discoveries but obsessed about his disability, personal life, and his “pronouncements.” Any scandal, such as his “yen for strip clubs,” added to the legend. The last of many movies about him, The Theory of Everything (2014), was “a tear-jerker of a love story.” The author’s excellent explanation of Hawking’s science makes this a top-notch biography of a significant scientific figure, but Seife also produces a uniquely disturbing portrait of deliberate mythmaking.

An unflattering yet outstanding biography of a giant of 20th-century physics.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5416-1837-4

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Jan. 19, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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Gates offers a persuasive, 30,000-foot view of a global problem that, he insists, can be prevented given will and money.

HOW TO PREVENT THE NEXT PANDEMIC

The tech mogul recounts the health care–related dimensions of his foundation in what amounts to a long policy paper.

“Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” Thus states the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, a Gates adviser, who hits on a critically important point: Disease is a fact of nature, but a pandemic is a political creation of a kind. Therefore, there are political as well as medical solutions that can enlist governments as well as scientists to contain outbreaks and make sure they don’t explode into global disasters. One critical element, Gates writes, is to alleviate the gap between high- and low-income countries, the latter of which suffer disproportionately from outbreaks. Another is to convince governments to ramp up production of vaccines that are “universal”—i.e., applicable to an existing range of disease agents, especially respiratory pathogens such as coronaviruses and flus—to prepare the world’s populations for the inevitable. “Doing the right thing early pays huge dividends later,” writes Gates. Even though doing the right thing is often expensive, the author urges that it’s a wise investment and one that has never been attempted—e.g., developing a “global corps” of scientists and aid workers “whose job is to wake up every day thinking about diseases that could kill huge numbers of people.” To those who object that such things are easier said than done, Gates counters that the development of the current range of Covid vaccines was improbably fast, taking a third of the time that would normally have been required. At the same time, the author examines some of the social changes that came about through the pandemic, including the “new normal” of distance working and learning—both of which, he urges, stand to be improved but need not be abandoned.

Gates offers a persuasive, 30,000-foot view of a global problem that, he insists, can be prevented given will and money.

Pub Date: May 3, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-53448-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2022

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A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

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GREENLIGHTS

All right, all right, all right: The affable, laconic actor delivers a combination of memoir and self-help book.

“This is an approach book,” writes McConaughey, adding that it contains “philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life.” Some of those philosophies come in the form of apothegms: “When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze”; “Simplify, focus, conserve to liberate.” Others come in the form of sometimes rambling stories that never take the shortest route from point A to point B, as when he recounts a dream-spurred, challenging visit to the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, who offered a significant lesson in how disagreement can be expressed politely and without rancor. Fans of McConaughey will enjoy his memories—which line up squarely with other accounts in Melissa Maerz’s recent oral history, Alright, Alright, Alright—of his debut in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, to which he contributed not just that signature phrase, but also a kind of too-cool-for-school hipness that dissolves a bit upon realizing that he’s an older guy on the prowl for teenage girls. McConaughey’s prep to settle into the role of Wooderson involved inhabiting the mind of a dude who digs cars, rock ’n’ roll, and “chicks,” and he ran with it, reminding readers that the film originally had only three scripted scenes for his character. The lesson: “Do one thing well, then another. Once, then once more.” It’s clear that the author is a thoughtful man, even an intellectual of sorts, though without the earnestness of Ethan Hawke or James Franco. Though some of the sentiments are greeting card–ish, this book is entertaining and full of good lessons.

A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-13913-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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