For a change, not just a miscellany of previously published pieces but essays—including two originals—with a couple of underlying themes. Generally, these pieces concern my-life-and-thoughts-about- writing, as well as insights into particular writers, editors, and scientists whom Bernstein (The Life It Brings, 1987, etc.) has known or studied extensively. This preeminent profiler of scientists for The New Yorker begins with a tribute to William Shawn, who meticulously dissected Bernstein's first 60-page piece. In other essays, Bernstein conveys what it is, in style and substance, that enables one to distinguish geniuses from cranks. There are admiring essays on Ernst (speed of sound) Mach, who could never be convinced of the reality of atoms; of Einstein, who could never accept quantum theory; and of Hawking, who sneers at ``Theories of Everything.'' Finally, Bernstein makes some startling comments on science biographies and science writing. He says that he finds confessional biographies excessive—from Watson to Luria to Turing to Feynman. At the same time, he finds Einstein's letters to his lover/first-wife absorbing and revealing, and he is quite willing to discuss Schrîdinger's well-known womanizing. Bernstein also says that he truly believes (at least in his own case) that you have to be a scientist to write about science—and that you must keep working at both vocations. Thus, he rejects the later writing of Primo Levi after Levi retired from chemistry. One wonders if Bernstein doesn't suffer the opposite of Harold Bloom's ``anxiety of influence'': Far from feeling anxiety, he wants constant dipping into the scientific waters of mentors and peers. For all one may carp with the opinions and self-righteousness, there's no denying that Bernstein writes well and sometimes even in a light vein. So readers will be rewarded to learn what happened to Tom Lehrer as well as to hear about the great and the tragic.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 1993

ISBN: 0-465-08897-X

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1992

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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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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