A curiosity-whetting investigation of imagined life beyond our world.




Are we alone in the universe? Two well-known astronomers tackle the possibilities in this tour of exoplanets.

We know of only one planet on which life exists—Earth—but is life an everyday chemical and physical reaction in the universe or a unique fluke? We have a pretty good idea of some of the steps that led to life on Earth and a firm understanding of how it evolved since then. So how does this apply to the types of exoplanets we may encounter? Would life develop there as it did on Earth? How different could it be? Given the complexity and diversity of exoplanets we have found, will the answers be correspondingly complex and diverse? These are some of the questions approached by George Mason University physics and astronomy professors Trefil and Summers (co-authors: Exoplanets, 2018, etc.) in this sober yet enervating examination of possible life scenarios on a variety of exoplanet settings. First, the authors define life, which can be handled as a list (adaptation, growth, homeostasis, metabolism, organization, reproduction, responsiveness), a process (the NASA definition is “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”), or in terms of thermodynamics. The authors then take these definitions and apply them to a variety of possible planets: one with a rocky mantle and a metallic core overlaid with ice; one with an ocean beneath ice; in another, a land-and-water combination, etc. They probe each scenario to imagine how life could have taken shape given the opportunities and constraints. Trefil and Summers try their best to keep the language geared to a lay audience, but they can’t avoid some formulas: “Galileo’s argument rests on the fact that the volume, and hence the mass, of a structure depends on the cube of its dimensions, while the size of the support area depends on the square.” Overall, though, the prose is straightforward, and the authors make the potentialities of exoplanet life intriguingly real. Finally, they consider nonorganic life forms, for instance silicon chemistry replacing carbon-based life forms.

A curiosity-whetting investigation of imagined life beyond our world.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-58834-664-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Smithsonian Books

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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An eye-opening glimpse into the attempted self-unmaking of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable talents.


The debut memoir from the pop and fashion star.

Early on, Simpson describes the book she didn’t write: “a motivational manual telling you how to live your best life.” Though having committed to the lucrative deal years before, she “walked away,” fearing any sort of self-help advice she might give would be hypocritical. Outwardly, Simpson was at the peak of her success, with her fashion line generating “one billion dollars in annual sales.” However, anxiety was getting the better of her, and she admits she’d become a “feelings addict,” just needing “enough noise to distract me from the pain I’d been avoiding since childhood. The demons of traumatic abuse that refused to let me sleep at night—Tylenol PM at age twelve, red wine and Ambien as a grown, scared woman. Those same demons who perched on my shoulder, and when they saw a man as dark as them, leaned in to my ear to whisper, ‘Just give him your light. See if it saves him…’ ” On Halloween 2017, Simpson hit rock bottom, and, with the intervention of her devoted friends and husband, began to address her addictions and underlying fears. In this readable but overlong narrative, the author traces her childhood as a Baptist preacher’s daughter moving 18 times before she “hit fifth grade,” and follows her remarkable rise to fame as a singer. She reveals the psychological trauma resulting from years of sexual abuse by a family friend, experiences that drew her repeatedly into bad relationships with men, most publicly with ex-husband Nick Lachey. Admitting that she was attracted to the validating power of an audience, Simpson analyzes how her failings and triumphs have enabled her to take control of her life, even as she was hounded by the press and various music and movie executives about her weight. Simpson’s memoir contains plenty of personal and professional moments for fans to savor.

An eye-opening glimpse into the attempted self-unmaking of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable talents.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-289996-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Dey Street/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2020

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