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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2005

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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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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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