The best sort of science history, explaining not only how great men made great discoveries, but why equally great men,...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2017

  • Kirkus Prize
  • Kirkus Prize
    finalist

THE SEEDS OF LIFE

FROM ARISTOTLE TO DA VINCI, FROM SHARKS' TEETH TO FROGS' PANTS, THE LONG AND STRANGE QUEST TO DISCOVER WHERE BABIES COME FROM

A history of the “search for the solution to the sex and conception mystery,” focused on the period between 1650 and 1900.

As former Boston Globe chief science writer Dolnick (The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853, 2014, etc.) notes at the beginning of his latest book, “not everyone has wondered why the stars shine or why the earth spins,” but “every person who has ever lived has asked where babies come from.” Thoughtful scientists have confidently delivered the wrong answer, and the author provides a delightful history of what happened until they got it right. Everyone knew that an egg was involved, although brilliant anatomists (Vesalius, William Harvey) searched humans in vain. Semen was essential and—as men were considered the superior sex—the most important factor, but its role remained mysterious. When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek turned his microscope on his semen in the 1670s, he believed that each of the innumerable wiggling creatures contained a tiny human. Most scientists disagreed, insisting that the tiny human resided inside the still-unobserved human egg. This was “preformism.” To early scientists, making an embryo from nothing was absurd. More refined experiments and the discovery that cells make up all living things produced impressive advances, but it was not until 1875 that a German biologist who remains mostly unknown (Oscar Hertwig) first saw a single sperm penetrate an egg (of a sea urchin) and fuse with the nucleus, after which the cell began to divide. Researchers then turned their attention to what happens afterward, but, having effectively answered the big question, Dolnick stops there.

The best sort of science history, explaining not only how great men made great discoveries, but why equally great men, trapped by prejudices and what seemed to be plain common sense, missed what was in front of their noses.

Pub Date: June 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-465-08295-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2017

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

Did you like this book?

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

Did you like this book?

more