THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2012

A showcase for clean, plain-English science and nature writing and a treat for readers.

Ariely (Psychology and Behavioral Economics/Duke Univ.; The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, 2012, etc.) presents a smorgasbord of top-notch science writing covering everything from the 1,000 species in the human gut to efforts to reverse-evolve a chicken into a dinosaur.

The two dozen pieces reflect the conclusion that “we are extraordinary yet flawed and predictably irrational creatures.” This is certainly the case in John Seabrook’s account of crowd disasters, including the 2008 “Black Friday” crush at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, and in Jason Daley’s exploration of our human tendency in gauging risk to “focus on the one-in-a-million bogeyman while virtually ignoring the true risks that inhabit our world.” The many other topics include allergies, marauder ants, lab-grown meat, airborne contaminants, the adolescent brain, the intelligence of octopuses and the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. Most of the essays combine lucid summaries of current research with vivid descriptions of the lives and goals of scientists from molecular biologists to paleontologists. The fact that many pieces come from nonspecialist magazines underscores the extent to which science now informs all aspects of modern life. Especially intriguing: Michael Roberts’ report from Outside on a young biologist’s efforts to spur increased conservation efforts by building on the calming effects many people feel in the presence of the ocean and Brian Christian’s revealing Atlantic account of the Turing Test and an annual event at which humans compete with artificial intelligence programs. Other contributors include Jerome Groopman, Rivka Galchen and Elizabeth Kolbert.

A showcase for clean, plain-English science and nature writing and a treat for readers.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-547-79953-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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