Asimov-watchers know his fascination with measurements. They know, too, that he'll always provide some down-home comparison to make a millimetre meaningful. This volume can be said to represent the apotheosis of Asimov as Ruler of Weights and Measures. He has chosen to celebrate the Systeme International d'Unites, known to all metric users as the "SI version." In his compulsive way, Asimov takes the reader up and down assorted ladders of length, area, volume, of mass and density, temperature, time, pressure, and more. He meticulously explains exponential notation at the outset, and goes on to explain the origins of rods, furlongs, acres, and suchlike used in the English system (obsolete, of course, outside England and America). Will this exercise win new friends for litres and metres? (The SI spelling.) Will it persuade Congress or the constituency outside science? Probably not. It will serve as a fine reference for schools, however, and might ease the burden of math and science teachers with its inspired examples: "The population of Rumania would also have a total mass of about 1 megatonne"; "A ray of light would, in a decisecond [0.1 second], travel 30 megametres. This is three-fourths of the distance around the Earth at the equator." There is also a hidden agenda: as Asimov pursues the nuances of space or time he can track the age and extent of the universe, the evolution of species, the dimensions of everything from cells to stars; he can explain mass vs. weight, superpressure, superdensities, superconductivity. . . adding an occasional macabre fillip: "5.27 minutes is about the time it takes for a human being to die of asphyxiation." Readers can best savor the full measure of the book, so to speak, in tasty bits and pieces.

Pub Date: June 1, 1983

ISBN: 0060151293

Page Count: -

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1983

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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...


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...


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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