A well-meaning but diffident treatise. Read Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge (2014) for a more useful take on what comes next.

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DANGEROUS YEARS

CLIMATE CHANGE, THE LONG EMERGENCY, AND THE WAY FORWARD

Farewell, beloved planet.

In this laundry list of the world’s many maladies, Orr (Emeritus, Environmental Studies and Politics/Oberlin Coll.; Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, 2009, etc.) observes that we’re almost certainly heading for a time of woe thanks to climate destabilization, projecting 50-50 odds that we’ll somehow figure out a way around the worst of the physical and social effects. “For perspective,” he writes, “no sane person would get in a car with those odds of a fatal accident.” Yet we’re all riding on the same planet, and there’s work to do. The author’s prescriptions are seemingly scattershot, but it’s perfectly in keeping for a professor at a small liberal arts college to wish for a curriculum more oriented toward describing the world as a system and that prepares the rising generation “for a rapidly destabilizing ecosphere for which we have no precedent.” Talk about a trigger warning. A little Consciousness III stuff goes a long way, and there’s a lot of it here. Occasionally, it works, as when Orr ponders why we might feel some duty to coming generations “on the unverifiable grounds of my own feelings and experiences such as they are”—i.e., we know that we enjoy the feel of a cool breeze and the sight of flowing water, so why should we not protect them on the off chance that future people will enjoy them, too? Alas, that’s not the way of our time. As the author notes, though throughout most of history, “each generation left things more or less as they found them,” we live in a more fraught time of uncreative destruction. Scientists are rushing to document the extent of our damage, and while humanities scholars ought to have something to say about this, it seems a touch unhelpful to suggest wistfully that we need to be more thoughtful citizens who “broaden and deepen the local conversation on sustainability.”

A well-meaning but diffident treatise. Read Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge (2014) for a more useful take on what comes next.

Pub Date: Nov. 22, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-300-22281-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Sept. 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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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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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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