THE FERMI SOLUTION

ESSAYS ON SCIENCE

Further essays from William and Mary physicist von Baeyer, who pleased with Taming the Atom (1992) and Rainbows, Snowflakes, and Quarks (1984). The compass here is physics: Newtonian, quantum, and astro-, with some commentary on the style of doing physics, along with its attendant aesthetics and pleasures. The title essay, for example, demonstrates Enrico Fermi's way of tackling seemingly intractable problems by breaking them into manageable bits with reasonable assumptions. So von Baeyer details how to solve the legendary problem that Fermi posed to his students: ``How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?'' (answered by estimating how many families; how many pianos; how many pianos a tuner can tune a year, etc.). Von Baeyer's explanation should be must reading for all high-school students (it also applies to business, economics, estimations of risk, etc.). For the rest, the author neatly comments on dark matter, the not-quite-empty void, gravity waves, absolute zero, the elusive monopole, and other quantum esoterica. He's at his best when using everyday analogies- -e.g., gut memories of gravity walls and roller coasters to illustrate points of equivalence between gravity and inertial forces. Several essays deal with new phenomena such as quasi- crystals and nondestructive, noninvasive analytic techniques. Here, the author should be cautioned that CAT and PET scans are by no means ``noninvasive,'' since they expose patients to radiation. Overall, von Baeyer does extremely well by words alone, but a few illustrations would have underscored the trickier points.

Pub Date: June 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-679-40031-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1993

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Weisman quietly unfolds his sobering cautionary tale, allowing us to conclude what we may about the balancing act that...

THE WORLD WITHOUT US

Nicely textured account of what the Earth would look like if humans disappeared.

Disaster movies have depicted the State of Liberty poking out from the ground and empty cities overgrown with trees and vines, but what would really happen if, for one reason or another, every single one of us vanished from the planet? Building on a Discover magazine article, Weisman (Journalism/Univ. of Arizona; An Echo in My Blood, 1999, etc.) addresses the question. There are no shocks here—nature goes on. But it is unsettling to observe the processes. Drawing on interviews with architects, biologists, engineers, physicists, wildlife managers, archaeologists, extinction experts and many others willing to conjecture, Weisman shows how underground water would destroy city streets, lightning would set fires, moisture and animals would turn temperate-zone suburbs into forests in 500 years and 441 nuclear plants would overheat and burn or melt. “Watch, and maybe learn,” writes the author. Many of his lessons come from past developments, such as the sudden disappearance of the Maya 1,600 years ago and the evolution of animals and humans in Africa. Bridges will fall, subways near fault lines in New York and San Francisco will cave in, glaciers will wipe away much of the built world and scavengers will clean our human bones within a few months. Yet some things will persist after we’re gone: bronze sculptures, Mount Rushmore (about 7.2 millions years, given granite’s erosion rate of one inch every 10,000 years), particles of everything made of plastic, manmade underground malls in Montreal and Moscow. In Hawaii, lacking predators, cows and pigs will rule.

Weisman quietly unfolds his sobering cautionary tale, allowing us to conclude what we may about the balancing act that nature and humans need to maintain to survive.

Pub Date: July 10, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-312-34729-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2007

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Not light reading but essential for policymakers—and highly recommended for the 40 million people who rely on the Great...

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT LAKES

An alarming account of the “slow-motion catastrophe” facing the world’s largest freshwater system.

Based on 13 years of reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this exhaustively detailed examination of the Great Lakes reveals the extent to which this 94,000-square-mile natural resource has been exploited for two centuries. The main culprits have been “over-fishing, over-polluting, and over-prioritizing navigation,” writes Egan, winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. Combining scientific details, the stories of researchers investigating ecological crises, and interviews with people who live and work along the lakes, the author crafts an absorbing narrative of science and human folly. The St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals, and channels leading to the Atlantic Ocean, which allows “noxious species” from foreign ports to enter the lakes through ballast water dumped by freighters, has been a central player. Biologically contaminated ballast water is “the worst kind of pollution,” writes Egan. “It breeds.” As a result, mussels and other invasive species have been devastating the ecosystem and traveling across the country to wreak harm in the West. At the same time, farm-fertilizer runoff has helped create “massive seasonal toxic algae blooms that are turning [Lake] Erie’s water into something that seems impossible for a sea of its size: poison.” The blooms contain “the seeds of a natural and public health disaster.” While lengthy and often highly technical, Egan’s sections on frustrating attempts to engineer the lakes by introducing predator fish species underscore the complexity of the challenge. The author also covers the threats posed by climate change and attempts by outsiders to divert lake waters for profit. He notes that the political will is lacking to reduce farm runoffs. The lakes could “heal on their own,” if protected from new invasions and if the fish and mussels already present “find a new ecological balance.”

Not light reading but essential for policymakers—and highly recommended for the 40 million people who rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24643-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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