An enlightening account of past and present knowledge and the future possibilities of human heredity.


The information revolution in silicon gets the headlines, but a revolution in genetics has been running in parallel and will soon affect our lives even more profoundly. Plenty of authors are paying attention, but British physician and researcher Ryan (Metamorphosis: Unmasking the Mystery of How Life Transforms, 2011, etc.) delivers an up-to-date history that will be definitive—at least for a few years.

After a passing glance at Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, Ryan explores the work of one of the greatest scientists to never have won a Nobel Prize: Oswald Avery, who led the team that discovered, in the 1940s, that DNA carries genetic information. Until that point, everyone assumed that genes were proteins—extremely complex molecules. However, despite an impressive size, DNA has a simple, repetitious structure. In an act of dazzling creativity (others did the actual research), James Watson and Francis Crick determined the makeup of DNA in 1952. Researchers soon deciphered its code, and the race was on to learn how genes make a living thing. Matters have become complicated in recent years, but we’re getting close. Ryan quotes liberally from The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), Horace Freeland Judson’s masterpiece on the early decades of DNA research. Like Judson, Ryan conducts thoughtful interviews, describes experiments in precise detail, and takes care to include the inevitable politics, personalities, frustrations, and controversies. He manages to make sense of a relentless stream of discoveries that have already revolutionized our picture of human evolution and which will allow us—not quite yet but any year now—to create life in the lab and cure disease. “In April 2015 the human embryo was deliberately engineered in a scientific experiment for the first time,” writes the author. “I believe that this is as great a leap as the discovery of gravity by Newton [and] relativity by Einstein.”

An enlightening account of past and present knowledge and the future possibilities of human heredity.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-1633881525

Page Count: 342

Publisher: Prometheus Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

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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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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