An ingenious, if highly speculative, save-the-planet proposal that emphasizes science over politics.



How future technology can clean up the environment.

Physicist Forman and science writer and biologist Asher note the interesting datum that each day, a human “expends eight times the amount of energy released when a single stick of dynamite explodes”—but at a much slower rate. Slowness allows living organisms to metabolize with superb efficiency and produce waste products—mostly water, carbon dioxide, heat, and organic matter—that are not discarded but become energy sources for other organisms. In stark contrast, human creation and consumption dump waste into landfills or the atmosphere. The authors propose an alternative that replenishes resources and passes waste on to other industries for further use—a “circular economy” instead of our ruinous linear one. They emphasize that we must learn to grow material organically, just as wood, bone, silk, and others are grown in the real world: “How incredible would it be if a smartphone could be grown like an apple on a tree?” Using many dazzling illustrations, they deliver a capsule but definitely not dumbed-down education on the biology and thermodynamics that engineers must understand as they change the world. Skeptical readers will discover that two technologies that support the circular economy are already well along in development: additive manufacturing (3-D printing) and synthetic biology, which reprograms DNA “to give us complete control over the chemical tasks that biological cells can perform on our behalf.” The end result of these advancements, write the authors, will be a transformative, interconnected global system. Whereas the internet connects us to information, this “synthernet” would connect to the materials around us; allow us to recycle nearly everything, including our out-of-date smartphone; and then build the latest “biosmartphone” to order. Humans are superb problem-solvers, and the authors make a convincing case that technology will mitigate at least some of the devastation we are inflicting on the Earth. Readers unfamiliar with heterotic computing, photolithography, and other technical terms will appreciate the glossary.

An ingenious, if highly speculative, save-the-planet proposal that emphasizes science over politics.

Pub Date: March 30, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-262-04446-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: MIT Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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.


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 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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