Sparkling prose conveys an urgent message.

SOUNDS WILD AND BROKEN

SONIC MARVELS, EVOLUTION'S CREATIVITY, AND THE CRISIS OF SENSORY EXTINCTION

A joyous celebration of the music of life, from the acclaimed author of The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees.

Seamlessly melding history, ecology, physiology, philosophy, and biology, Haskell exults in the delightful cacophony created by birds and insects, wind and sea, human voices and musical instruments as he engages in the practice of “attentive listening” in his travels around the world. “Every vocal species,” he writes, “has a distinctive sound. Every place on the globe has an acoustic character made from the unique confluence of this multitude of voices.” This multitude of sound, though, is being threatened by noise pollution and habitat extinction, dire consequences of human behavior. Sound, Haskell reveals, is a fairly new development in the planet’s history, made possible by the manifestation, 1.5 billion years ago, of cilia, tiny hairs on the cell membrane that help cells move—and also, as in our own inner ears, to sense sonic vibrations. “For more than nine-tenths of its history, Earth lacked any communicative sounds,” writes the author. “No creatures sang when the seas first swarmed with animal life or when the ocean’s reefs first rose. The land’s primeval forests contained no calling insects or vertebrate animals.” Flowering plants ushered in life forms such as insects, which filled the air with trills and buzzes, and birds, for whom sound-making “mediates breeding, territoriality, and the alliances and tensions of animal social networks.” Haskell’s capacious purview includes the origins of musical instruments, some 40,000 years ago; the possibility that dinosaurs made low bugling sounds; the particular cries of birds living above the tree line; and the way sounds, including those made by humans, are adapted to environment and even shaped by diet. He mounts a compelling warning about “the silencing of ecosystems,” which “isolates individuals, fragments communities, and weakens the ecological resilience and evolutionary creativity of life.” Like “cultural knowledge,” Haskell asserts, “sound is unseen and ephemeral” and too precious to lose.

Sparkling prose conveys an urgent message.

Pub Date: March 1, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-984881-54-0

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2022

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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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A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNIVERSE

Two science podcasters answer their mail.

In this illustrated follow-up to We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe (2017), Cham, a cartoonist and former research associate and instructor at Caltech, and Whiteson, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine, explain the basic science behind subjects that seem to preoccupy the listeners of their podcast, Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe. Most of the questions involve physics or astrophysics and take the form of, is such-and-such possible?—e.g., teleportation, alien visitors, building a warp drive, entering a black hole). The authors emphasize that they are answering as scientists, not engineers. “A physicist will say something is possible if they don’t know of a law of physics that prevents it.” Thus, a spaceship traveling fast enough to reach the nearest star in a reasonable amount of time is not forbidden by the laws of physics, but building one is inconceivable. Similarly, wormholes and time travel are “not known to be impossible”—as are many other scenarios. Some distressing events are guaranteed. An asteroid will strike the Earth, the sun will explode, and the human race will become extinct, but studies reveal that none are immediate threats. Sadly, making Mars as habitable as Earth is possible but only with improbably futuristic technology. For those who suspect that we are living in a computer simulation, the authors describe what clues to look for. Readers may worry that the authors step beyond their expertise when they include chapters on the existence of an afterlife or the question of free will. Sticking closely to hard science, they deliver a lucid overview of brain function and the debate over the existence of alternate universes that is unlikely to provoke controversy. The authors’ work fits neatly into the recently burgeoning market of breezy pop-science books full of jokes, asides, and cartoons that serve as introductions to concepts that require much further study to fully understand.

A solid foundational education in a handful of lively scientific topics.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-593-18931-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2021

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