Kolata’s is a knowledgeable voice, and her enthusiasm for the chase draws us into the intrigue. Her frightening conclusion?...

FLU

THE STORY OF THE GREAT INFLUENZA PANDEMIC OF 1918 AND THE SEARCH FOR THE VIRUS THAT CAUSED IT

A still-unsolved medical mystery, expertly told: What caused the influenza pandemic of 1918, a disaster that dwarfs every other epidemic in this century? And could it happen again?

New York Times science reporter Kolata (Clone: The Road to Dolly, 1998, etc.) was a microbiology major in college when the scope of the 1918 flu deaths first hit home for her: “It was a plague so deadly that if a similar virus were to strike today, it would kill more people in a single year than heart disease, cancers, strokes, chronic pulmonary disease, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s disease combined." In spite of the illness’s devastating toll, the origin of the 1918 flu remains a mystery. Was it a mutation in an ordinary human flu virus that caused a transformation into a global killer? Or was it a crossover from an animal disease, like the variant of swine flu that has been investigated as a possible culprit? An especially perplexing aspect of the disease is its W-shaped death curve: There were peaks for children under five years, and for the elderly ages 70 to 74 years—but also a middle peak for 20-to-40-year-olds, a surprisingly vulnerable group. Those trying to determine the mode of transmission were unable to devise any method (and Kolata relates in revolting detail a number of failed attempts) to infect healthy subjects with the disease. Throughout, she provides a number of hair-raising descriptions of the disease, which eventually afflicted more than 25 percent of the U.S. population. Along the way, readers also get a picture of the research world: At one point, many of those studying the elusive influenza viruses dropped that work to go after HIV. “Every virologist loves a new virus," confesses English scientist John Oxford, and they mistakenly thought HIV was an easy cure.

Kolata’s is a knowledgeable voice, and her enthusiasm for the chase draws us into the intrigue. Her frightening conclusion? It could happen again, at any time.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-15706-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1999

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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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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