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

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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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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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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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