An enjoyable debut appropriate for both specialists and general readers.



A lively account of physicists in finance.

A young physicist and contributor to Slate and Scientific American, Weatherall (Logic and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of California, Irvine) was puzzled when experts began blaming the 2008 economic collapse on physicists who created complex financial instruments for Wall Street. He wondered: What do physicists have to do with the economy? The author explains how physicists have been predicting the unpredictable on Wall Street for 30 years, accounting for such hedge-fund successes as Jim Simons’ Renaissance Technologies, whose staff, loaded with physics and math doctorates, produced a remarkable 2,478.6 percent return in the decade from 1988 to 1998. The story begins in 19th-century Paris with Louis Bachelier, an aspiring young physicist who worked at the Bourse and viewed trading as an elaborate game of chance. In his dissertation, he explained how probability theory could be used to understand financial markets. “In a just world, Bachelier would be to finance what Newton is to physics,” writes Weatherall. Bachelier was dismissed as a fringe figure in his lifetime, only to be rediscovered and championed years later by economist Paul Samuelson. Others trained in physics, including Maury Osborne of the U.S. Naval Research Lab, and Benoit Mandelbrot, who studied cotton markets, further refined the idea that markets can be understood in terms of a random walk. In a series of bright portraits, Weatherall describes the many subsequent figures who spurred the further evolution of financial modeling, including Edward Thorp, who developed a winning system for blackjack in 1960s Las Vegas and went on to invent the modern hedge fund; party-going wild man and Bell Labs scientist John Kelly Jr., who applied information theory to gambling; and the anti-establishment yippies Doyne Farmer and Norman Packard, who built their Prediction Company using tools developed to anticipate how a turbulent fluid would behave in a narrow pipe.

An enjoyable debut appropriate for both specialists and general readers.

Pub Date: Jan. 2, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-31727-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2012

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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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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