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

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

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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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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