Though somewhat disorganized, the content and quality of the writing is consistently top-notch.

TALES FROM THE ANT WORLD

The world-renowned ant expert cleans out his desk, which—no surprise—contains many gems.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author and naturalist Wilson’s writing on broader scientific subjects have won him awards and no lack of controversy. Now 90, largely retired from fieldwork and scholarship but an indefatigable writer, he has assembled scraps of autobiography and anecdotes on his favorite insect. The author provides evidence that the secret of happiness lies in having an obsession rather than money, talent, genius, or even a cheerful disposition. From childhood, passion for natural history consumed him, beginning with all creatures, then focused on insects and, eventually, ants. Other memoirists agonize over dysfunctional parents, questionable friends, disappointment in love, or poor life decisions. Wilson has had his share, but he also has ants, which provide contentment in his life. With regular detours into personal experiences, the author delivers two dozen chapters on their history, ecology, diet, and the organization of the colony (no ant lives alone), without ignoring the dozens of parasites it supports. Ants make up the dominant land carnivore in their size range, and estimates show that “all the living ants weigh about the same as all the living humans.” Though infectiously enthusiastic about ants, Wilson is no sentimentalist; he warns that nothing about an ant’s life provides moral uplift. Males are useless except as sources of sperm for the queen. Females do all the work, and “service to the colony is everything.” Young ants work at safe jobs such as attending the queen. As they grow older, their jobs become riskier—from sentinel to forager to guard to warrior. Put more plainly, “where humans send their young adults into battle, ants send their old ladies.” Workers who encounter a dead ant in the nest dump it “in the colony refuse pile,” unless they eat it. If it’s only injured and dying, they eat it.

Though somewhat disorganized, the content and quality of the writing is consistently top-notch.

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63149-556-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2020

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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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