A welcome contribution to the history of science, one that merits shelving alongside Stephen Jay Gould and John McPhee.



Engaging biography of the Scottish scientist (and, in his day, renowned eccentric) who braved the “fire of damnation” by suggesting that the Book of Genesis was a metaphor, not a documentary.

Repcheck, a science editor at Norton, reckons that James Hutton is something of an obscure figure today for several reasons: he lacked Charles Darwin’s genius for self-promotion, announced his greatest hypotheses at a time when the English-speaking world’s attention was fixed on the American Revolution, and, plainly put, “was not a gifted communicator.” Moreover, his massive magnum opus, The Theory of the Earth, was a jumble of mathematical formulas and learned quotations in many languages, hard to slog through and in any event printed in an edition of only 500 copies. Yet, as Repcheck ably shows, Hutton’s work was profoundly influential. He presented formal proof, for the first time, that the world was far older than the 6,000 years the Bible allowed—a chronology, Repcheck writes, that was held to be sacred and irrefutable, for which reason Hutton was widely denounced as a heretic, even though he, like Copernicus (but unlike Darwin), “had strong faith in God.” Furthermore, Hutton recognized that the Earth’s form required long periods of time by which cyclical processes such as volcanism and erosion could do their work—an idea that was of transformational importance to the new science of geology. “For Hutton,” Repcheck writes, “there was no need to call upon unseen and unknowable catastrophes from the past, such as the Deluge or the Universal Ocean, to explain any geological formations; they were all understandable based on knowledge and processes still occurring.” In other words, on evolution—and Repcheck does a fine job of showing how Hutton’s ideas paved the way for those of Lyell and Darwin, whose iconoclastic theories would soon overshadow his own.

A welcome contribution to the history of science, one that merits shelving alongside Stephen Jay Gould and John McPhee.

Pub Date: June 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-7382-0692-X

Page Count: 229

Publisher: Perseus

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.



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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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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