Able retelling of an epic adventure the 20th century has all but forgotten

HUMBOLDT’S COSMOS

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE LATIN AMERICAN JOURNEY THAT CHANGED THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD

Longtime book-publishing exec Helferich debuts with the chronicle of a journey so arduous it makes the Lewis and Clark expedition seem like a mere excursion.

Emerson once compared explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt to Julius Caesar, and certainly his Central and South American trek has all the drama of a power struggle in ancient Rome. It took Humboldt and his single companion, Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, from 1799 to 1804 to traverse 5,000 miles of some of the most forbidding, dangerous, and bleakest terrain on Earth. Add the unprecedented range and depth of cross-disciplinary scientific measurements, researches, experiments, and data collections (including plant and animal specimens) by a man nominated as the consummate intellectual by science pundit Stephen Jay Gould, and the epic stands as unique. At the very least, the unheralded mine inspector (trained in his native Prussia) was the most formidable dilettante who ever lived, chucking a career at age 29 to go off on a self-financed trip to satisfy his curiosity about both terra incognita and natural phenomena. There are more places named after Humboldt, Helferich asserts, than anyone else, from a Humboldt Bay in California to one in New Guinea. His exploits simply inspired accolades; even though he did not actually discover the Humboldt Current off South America, he was first to take its temperature and clock its flow. The author breaks little ground in following his subject, primarily through Humboldt’s own vast body of published works. Forced to address the unavoidable question raised by a life spent with close male companions, some of whom inspired what can only be called love letters, Helferich hews to the claim by “most historians” that these relationships did not involve sex. Also noted: the conflict between Humboldt’s intense personal aversion to slavery and his seeking of patronage from Spanish colonials, its most malignant practitioners.

Able retelling of an epic adventure the 20th century has all but forgotten

Pub Date: April 14, 2004

ISBN: 1-592-40052-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2004

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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