Baggott provides a wild but expert and comprehensive ride; readers will agree that while we have learned a great deal about...

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MASS

THE QUEST TO UNDERSTAND MATTER FROM GREEK ATOMS TO QUANTUM FIELDS

An imaginative book that seeks the answer to the question, what is matter?

The answer is definitely not simple, but veteran British science writer Baggott (Origins: The Scientific Story of Creation, 2015, etc.) has done his homework, and science-minded readers will enjoy the result. He begins with the revolutionary philosophers of ancient Greece, who thought deeply and concluded that matter consists of tiny atoms that move about in a void and combine to produce everything we see and experience. For more than two millennia, the concept of the atom remained an object of metaphysical speculation. Then, a few hundred years ago, the first scientists began to tease out more useful facts on the subject. By 1800, chemists understood that matter could be divided until it couldn’t; these were elements (iron, oxygen, carbon). After 1800, realizing that elements combined in simple whole numbers—two hydrogen and one oxygen become one water molecule—scientists theorized that elements consisted of invisibly small atoms. Skeptics disagreed, and it was not until 1905 that Einstein suggested the experiment that proved atoms exist. Then further complications arose. It turns out that matter is another form of energy (Einstein again); atoms are not indivisible but made up of particles, many of which contain little matter. Thus, three quarks making up a proton provide 1 percent of its mass, while the rest is energy. Recent advances suggest that matter is simply an alteration in a quantum field that gives rise to inertia. “In this alternative interpretation,” writes Baggott, “mass is not an intrinsic primary property of material substance; it is, rather, a behavior. It is something that objects do rather than something they have.” Readers not paying close attention will scratch their heads.

Baggott provides a wild but expert and comprehensive ride; readers will agree that while we have learned a great deal about matter, we still don’t understand it.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-19-875971-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 25, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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