Highly informative and accessible for general readers.



Biopharmaceutical consultant Kirsch debuts with a popular account of the search for new drugs, from prehistory through the rise of big pharma.

This lucid, anecdote-rich book, co-authored by science writer Ogas (co-author: Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, 2015, etc.), covers familiar ground for specialists but offers a bright overview for the rest of us of humankind’s hunt for medicines, first in the molecules of plants, then in synthetic compounds, and now in the human genome. Throughout history, drug discoveries have been “entirely fortuitous,” writes the author, who has been a chief science officer with several major drug firms. Successful drug hunting takes “talent, moxie, persistence, luck—and even then, it might not be enough.” In fact, most researchers “never” find new compounds that safely and effectively improve health. That said, Kirsch tells the fascinating stories of historic drug discoveries over the centuries, from opium (used in 3400 B.C.E.) to chloroform, ether, quinine, aspirin, penicillin, insulin, the birth control pill, and psychoactive medicines. Once physician-botanists (until the Renaissance) and now physician–molecular biologists, drug researchers have always faced “dismayingly difficult” trial-and-error screening. Recounting the work of researchers from Valerius Cordus (b. 1515), who wrote a landmark apothecary manual, to Paul Ehrlich, who developed the cure for syphilis, to Gregory Pincus, a scandal-tainted scientist who worked with two elderly feminists to develop an effective oral contraception drug, Kirsch describes the emergence of the science of pharmacology by the mid-20th century. Today, 50 to 70 percent of all clinical drug trials fail, and each FDA–approved drug requires an average investment of $1.5 billion and 14 years of research. Kirsch notes that big pharma has little incentive to develop medicines that produce cures—as opposed to drugs for chronic diseases like diabetes and high cholesterol, which users purchase again and again—and faults drug makers’ hostility to the “risk-laden reality of modern drug-hunting.”

Highly informative and accessible for general readers.

Pub Date: Jan. 3, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-62872-718-0

Page Count: 312

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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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. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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