A superb chronicle of a scientific struggle with a happy ending.



A fine history of the first 85 years of DNA and the “stories of the people who became entangled with it and who were variously enthralled, seduced or infuriated.”

Most readers have heard of James Watson and Francis Crick, but their 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA followed almost a century of biological research. Williams (Emeritus, Medicine/Univ. of Bristol; A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, 2016, etc.) begins by noting the significant work of 19th-century Swiss physicist Friedrich Miescher that laid the foundation. Although his isolation of nuclein (nucleic acids) was significant, no one realized that it was earth-shaking. Living cells teem with proteins, which are complex molecules. At this time, no one knew how heredity worked. Gregor Mendel’s basic rules of genetics, announced in the 1860s, remained unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1875 that German biologist Oscar Hertwig first saw a single sperm penetrate an egg and fuse with the nucleus, which then began to divide. Brilliant, obsessive men (and the occasional woman) march through the narrative. Genes and chromosomes make their appearances after 1900. Then X-ray crystallography, the key to deciphering atomic structure, explodes onto the scene. In the 1930s, studies hinting that DNA figured in heredity made little impression. In 1944, proof from Oswald Avery’s lab did not achieve iconic status for another decade, when others confirmed it and Watson and Crick worked their magic. Williams’ steady stream of biographies includes plenty of key figures unknown, he admits, even to him. They made significant discoveries (or barely missed) that helped to clarify the mechanism of heredity. There is no shortage of villains, tragedies, and missed opportunities, but readers will take comfort in knowing that it turns out well. They will enjoy lucid, opinionated writing and the useful (often neglected) who’s who and timeline at the beginning and generous glossary at the end.

A superb chronicle of a scientific struggle with a happy ending.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64313-215-0

Page Count: 504

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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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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