An ingenious overview of biology with emphasis on mathematical ideas—stimulating but requiring careful reading despite the...

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THE MATHEMATICS OF LIFE

In the past, students who loved science but hated math studied biology. That won’t work today, writes the prolific emeritus professor of Mathematics at Britain’s Warwick University, who explains why in his usual enthusiastic but definitely not dumbed-down style.

Physical scientists joked about biologists as “stamp collectors,” and this was not far off until Victorian times, as they happily occupied themselves discovering and describing living things. By 1850, botanists counting flower petals wondered why they almost always came up with 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55—the well-known series called Fibonacci numbers. Mystical speculation abounded until 20th-century research proved that the dynamics of growing plants forces cells into specific mathematical relationships. Having dipped the reader’s toe into his specialty, Stewart (Cows in the Maze: And Other Mathematical Explorations, 2010, etc.) proceeds to deliver a history of biology followed by a tour of current research. A fine chapter on Darwin and evolution contains almost no mathematics. The story of genetics, all the way up to the Human Genome Project, demands grade-school arithmetic to understand Mendel’s rules of heredity. Readers with painful memories of high-school algebra will feel reassured because Stewart accessibly explains population growth, speciation, brain function, chaos and game theory, networking, symmetry and even the mechanism that produces animal stripes and spots. The lack of equations does not imply simplicity, however; all chapters begin with basics, but readers without a scientific background will struggle to finish more than one.

An ingenious overview of biology with emphasis on mathematical ideas—stimulating but requiring careful reading despite the lack of equations.

Pub Date: June 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-465-02238-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2011

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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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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