A varied, insightful collection, albeit one steeped in scientific arcana, this will appeal to a select few.




A comprehensible, inviting journey into the inner lives of scientists and the relation of the “merely personal” to outsized realms of thought, from chess computers to cosmology.

Bernstein (Dawning of the Raj, 2000, etc.) pioneered attempts in the 1960s and ’70s to bring cutting-edge scientific thought to the mainstream; he notes that, initially, his articles for the New Yorker (where he was a staff writer from 1961 to 1993) were published anonymously to avoid an intellectual blackballing. This well-executed anthology of unpublished pieces and encores from venues like American Scholar and Commentary concentrates Bernstein’s endeavors to clarify both hard-scientific and philosophical inquiries. He steers somewhat elaborate essays back to the titular concept, derived from Einstein’s notion that the emotional, social lives of great scientists were of little concern relative to their discoveries. Despite his veneration of Einstein, Bernstein takes issue with this, confronting the resonance of scientists’ personal odysseys in a variety of forums. He begins by revisiting the chaotic 1972 Spassky-Fischer chess match (which he’d covered in an aborted Playboy article), comparing it with the existential trauma visited upon human excellence by the 1997 defeat of Gary Kasparov by IBM’s Deep Blue. “Tom Stoppard’s Quantum” provides an original exploration of the incursion of controversial theories into such cultural arenas as the theater, and the inaccurate yet trenchant ways in which they become re-worked. In “Enough Einstein?,” he wryly considers biographical problems regarding this famously private genius, discussing competing positions from the lurid to the insightful, as well as the clash of personalities involved in preserving Einstein’s thought and his estate, which were at odds. “The Merely Very Good” again relates physics and the arts, with touching consideration of the fates of those in both fields who are inevitably eclipsed by genius. Other essays offer moral exploration regarding compromised figures of the nuclear age, including Robert Oppenheimer’s post–Manhattan Project fall from grace, and those who contributed to or abstained from the Nazi atomic effort.

A varied, insightful collection, albeit one steeped in scientific arcana, this will appeal to a select few.

Pub Date: April 6, 2001

ISBN: 1-56663-344-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2001

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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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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