A treat, all in all, for fans of technological history and would-be inventors.

OUR OWN DEVICES

THE PAST AND FUTURE OF BODY TECHNOLOGY

A satisfying tale of chairs, shoelaces, spectacles, and other everyday technology that “helps shape how we use our bodies.”

Like his mentor Donald Norman, former Princeton University Press science editor and historian of technology Tenner (Why Things Bite Back, 1998) has a fascination for the unintended consequences of not-quite-thought-through innovations. Some, he argues, have altered our bodies and minds in unanticipated ways, sometimes culturally conditioned. Americans have been wearing flip-flops, for instance, only since the time of the Korean War, and we tend to keep a smaller angle between foot and sandal than do the Japanese, who land “not with the heel strike characteristic of the American subjects but with the forefoot of flat-footed, a technique that does not absorb the shock as effectively.” Chalk one up to American ingenuity, then, and watch for shock absorbers in the next generation of zoris—a type of shoe, Tenner writes, that has also yielded an ecological mess, with millions of discarded flip-flops washing up on Pacific beaches to crowd out shorebirds and shellfish. Elsewhere, among many other matters that touch on various bits of our beings, Tenner considers the history of reclining, showing effectively that taking meals while resting on one elbow, in the manner of the Roman aristocracy, was quite hard work, and that students who study in bed get the same grades as those who diligently seat themselves at their desks. It’s all good stuff, if circuitous and a little zany. However, taking it all in is not always an easy ride, for in his rush to cram in information, Tenner can get awfully elliptical: the Maxim gun, he writes, “favored by European powers for suppressing colonial resistance in the nineteenth century, begat the rugged and portable Kalashnikov brandished by guerrillas and terrorists”—but, one wonders, how and when? His text suffers a little, too, from repetitiveness. Still, there is so much good and freshly presented material here, and Tenner is so refreshingly enthusiastic in the task, that these amount to quibbles.

A treat, all in all, for fans of technological history and would-be inventors.

Pub Date: June 12, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-40722-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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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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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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