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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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