Wilcox writes in a lively style, but the book is likely of greatest interest to those already drawn to the subject.

VENOMOUS

HOW EARTH'S DEADLIEST CREATURES MASTERED BIOCHEMISTRY

How the creatures that embody some of mankind's deepest fears use toxic substances to defend themselves against predators and to prey on the creatures they eat—and why this is important to us today.

“There are two kinds of venom scientists,” writes molecular biologist Wilcox: microbiologists interested in studying the molecular complexities of toxic compounds and their pharmaceutical potential and those who are attracted to the adventurous pursuit of the animals who secrete them. The author places herself in both camps. “I…got into the study of venoms because of my love for the animals,” she writes. “But the more I learned about the intricate complexities of the chemical cocktails these animals produce, the more intrigued I was by the venoms themselves and the more I was drawn to the most dangerous of species.” Our preoccupation with these creatures is deep-seated, as demonstrated by the limestone pillars of a 10,000-year-old Turkish temple that are decorated with a host of venomous creatures, including spiders, snakes, and scorpions. Furthermore, writes the author, “fear of many of them is innate in humans, found even in the youngest babes,” and tens of thousands of people are killed each year despite the existence of anti-venoms—especially in poorer areas where access to treatment facilities is limited. Wilcox describes the debilitating pain she experienced after being stung by a poisonous sea urchin while shepherding schoolchildren on a field trip to study marine life. She admits that the frisson of danger is one of the appeals of studying these creatures in their natural environments. More significantly, she believes that there are “medical marvels…awaiting discovery in the deadliest of venoms,” including possible treatments for diseases such as HIV and cancer. The author concludes with a compelling message on the need for venomous animals, which are part of the biochemical riches with which our planet has been endowed.

Wilcox writes in a lively style, but the book is likely of greatest interest to those already drawn to the subject.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-374-28337-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

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

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

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. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more