A rigorously researched, clever, and obliquely feminist look at what happens over the ages when the Pygmalion complex is...

British journalist Wood profiles roboticists with castration complexes and other men, both real and fictional, who thought they might somehow be able to create life.

From Icarus to Dr. Frankenstein and beyond, these inventors display a mechanical ingenuity that appeals to the author almost as much as the Freudian aura of all their endeavors. Despite the title, Wood’s favorite seems to be Jacques de Vaucanson, a French designer who crafted bizarre automata in the mid-18th century. His moving musicians on pedestals were the toast of Europe (one flutist had a 12-song repertoire), but his crowning achievement was a quacking, waddling, clockwork duck that could gobble up bits of food and, after an appropriate interval, defecate. By the time it was revealed that possibly green-dyed breadcrumbs were stored within the duck for effective release, Vaucanson had moved on to revolutionize French silk manufacture. Mechanical humanoids that could write poetry, play chess, tell fortunes, etc., may not have much in common with today’s software-driven laboratory robots, but Wood finds the sentiments of compulsion and fascination (“They register emotions but do they realize what emotions they’re registering?”) to be a constant passed from tinkerer to cyberneticist. She has her way with Thomas Edison, finding the Wizard of Menlo Park to be an opportunistic misogynist who stuffed his newly minted phonograph into the body of a “talking doll” that sold for $10, about a week’s wages for a factory worker. In the same vein, she introduces an obscure French novel whose Edison-like protagonist creates the perfect woman for a love-crazed client, annotating it with quotations from the real Thomas A. to buttress her contention that he looked at a woman and saw a product that could be improved.

A rigorously researched, clever, and obliquely feminist look at what happens over the ages when the Pygmalion complex is closeted in a well-equipped workshop.

Pub Date: Aug. 21, 2002

ISBN: 0-679-45112-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2002



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


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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Close Quickview