As Owen amply proves, “water issues are never only about water.”

Travels along the endangered Colorado River and its tributaries reveal the challenges of providing water to 36 million people throughout the West.

New Yorker staff writer Owen (The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse, 2012, etc.) elaborates on the critique he presented in his previous book, this time focusing on one crucial natural resource: water. Devising a sustainable water policy, he argues convincingly, is complicated and sometimes counterintuitive. “Many of the technological wonders that we think of as solutions to our gathering environmental problems actually exacerbate other environmental problems,” he asserts. Wind turbines, electric car batteries, and computer chips, for example, depend on the extraction of rare elements from places “where labor and land are cheap, and where regulatory oversight is minimal.” This extraction damages land, ecosystems, rivers, and, not least, miners’ lives. Foremost among the many problems inherent in water use from the Colorado is salt. Because salt does not settle out the way silt does, it remains in recycled water, making that water unsuitable for drinking and agriculture. In high enough concentrations, plants cannot grow in topsoil saturated with salt: the salt flats of Utah stand as an example. If lawns and golf courses use salt-laden water, they can add tons of salt to every acre of soil. Following the river’s winding route, Owen interviewed environmental experts, farmers, RV drivers, and politicians, investigating water policy, laws, and conservation strategies. In California, he visited the agricultural Imperial Valley, irrigated by “a valley-sized plumbing system,” and the Salton Sea, “created by an act of engineering imbecility” that involved diverting the Colorado River. The largest lake in California is now desolate, saltier than the Pacific Ocean and unable to sustain the fish and birds that once thrived in it. The author chides off-the-grid environmentalists who are willfully blind to the energies they use to sustain their lives and makes a case for city life as environmentally responsible.

As Owen amply proves, “water issues are never only about water.”

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-59463-377-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Jan. 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017



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


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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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