A fine piece of science writing, from an author as intelligibly capable as Brian Greene or Richard Dawkins.



The story of telescope makers and their instruments, told with gleeful professionalism by the astronomer in charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory.

Watson opens this pleasing history with a little poke at his competitive comrades, who all want to be the first to discover something. For that, they all want the best telescope—a big telescope, the bigger the better. (Talk of a 100-meter aperture puts them in a near-pornographic swoon.) Watson, on the other hand, thinks the breakthroughs will likely come from instrumentation, all those attendant goodies that interpret the incoming light. This clever introduction works as a pratfall to get the reader’s attention. For now, the author must cover the monochromatic business of the telescope’s varieties, the creation of reflective surfaces, the optimal siting of the tools and adaptive optics, before he can gallop on to the colorful characters associated with its creation and development. Watson first tackles Tycho Brahe, Denmark’s 16th-century lord of the stars, but then moves back through time to investigate earlier rumors of a telescope: from Gerbert of Aurillac in the 11th century to the 1st-century Romans. Did Caesar scope the English coastline? And what was up with the Assyrians and their crystals, some 2,750 years ago? Then it’s back to recorded history with the well-known crew of Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, William Herschel, as well as such less-familiar figures like the Arab physicist Alhazen, James Gregory of St. Andrews, 17th-century Holland’s lens craftsmen, and many curious, cranky others. Despite the bitterness and beard-pulling, the public controversies over who had the first design and the campaigns of vilification, these characters don’t fail to gratify; indeed, their bickering casts them in a very enjoyable, human light. Finally, Watson tackles the less sexy radio telescopes, then the very sexy space-borne telescopes like the Hubble, all the while keeping his light touch of humor: “. . . quasars are the wildly energetic cores of delinquent young galaxies.”

A fine piece of science writing, from an author as intelligibly capable as Brian Greene or Richard Dawkins.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-306-81432-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Da Capo

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

Did you like this book?

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

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner


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. 4, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet