Readers who remember freshman college physics or astronomy will have an easier time, but few will regret encountering such...

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EINSTEIN'S MONSTERS

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BLACK HOLES

A lucid tour of “the best known and least understood objects in the universe.”

A black hole is a region in space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. It’s a concept that has long fascinated astronomers and continues to generate a steady stream of popular science books. In his latest, Impey (Astronomy/Univ. of Arizona; Beyond: Our Future in Space, 2015, etc.) delivers an accessible yet definitely not dumbed-down explanation of this spectacular phenomenon. From its inception, most scientists accepted Einstein’s 1915 Theory of Relativity, which described gravity as a distortion of space-time by a nearby mass. When his equations revealed that immense gravity would distort space-time so much that light would double back on itself, most scientists, Einstein included, assumed this was a mathematical curiosity. It wasn’t. Within the past 100 years, writes Impey, “black holes have evolved from a monstrous idea, one that violates common sense, to a proving ground for the most cherished theories in physics.” An ordinary black hole forms when a star ages, runs out of fuel, and collapses. Most shrink into dwarves, but when this happens to the rare star with a mass greater than 20 times that of the sun, no known force can prevent it from collapsing to an infinitely dense point called a singularity, surrounded by a black hole. Stranger still, at the center of every galaxy, including ours, is an immense “supermassive” black hole containing millions or billions of solar masses. A good writer as well as a specialist in black holes, Impey works hard and mostly successfully to illuminate complex phenomena without resorting to the TV documentary magic show (entertainment trumping explanation) and includes plenty of personal anecdotes, imaginative analogies, and useful illustrations.

Readers who remember freshman college physics or astronomy will have an easier time, but few will regret encountering such irresistible astrophysical wonders.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-324-00093-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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