A welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion of the future of America’s space program.

BEYOND EARTH

OUR PATH TO A NEW HOME IN THE PLANETS

An assessment of the prospects for establishing a future space colony.

While this is not yet on the radar screen, Wohlforth (The Fate of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability to Rescue the Earth, 2010, etc.) and Hendrix, a planetary scientist who worked at NASA’s propulsion laboratory, believe that such a long-term goal is needed to provide a focus for NASA, which is currently massively underfunded. As they note, “even an imaginary space colony decades off would provide a goal, a lodestar, to help align mission planners’ designs to the future.” The authors also explore the commercial potential for financing such a mission, beginning with space tourism. Saturn’s moon Titan appears to be the best candidate for such a colony because of its Earth-like environment and available energy. Apart from Earth, it is unique in the solar system in having surface liquids. Venture capitalist Elon Musk, the founder and owner of SpaceX, is a central character in this story. The mission of the company is to mass-produce rockets “fast, reliably, cheaply, and get them to space right now,” following the model of car manufacturers. The authors admit that the company is attempting to implement technologies first developed by NASA but with major cost reductions. In their opinion, the difference is Musk’s entrepreneurial spirit, in contrast to NASA’s bureaucracy—although like NASA in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion, SpaceX is facing financial problems. Aside from technological issues that are still to be resolved, a more serious problem is the potential physical danger to astronauts—e.g., the effects of cosmic radiation and weightlessness over long time periods. The authors successfully combine a visionary approach to space colonization with the practicalities facing the program now. Their conclusion that NASA should focus on “stretch technology,” leaving the rest to the private sector, is controversial but worthy of serious consideration.

A welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion of the future of America’s space program.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8041-9797-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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