The scientifically inclined will prefer a more rigorous explanation of why things are as they are.




The universe is a big, lonely place. But don’t feel too small: Here’s a book that reassures us that we all have a part in it.

Cosmology asks Big Questions: What is the universe made of? How old is it? Does it have an end? Will it end? Are we all alone on this watery rock, whirling around Sol with no particular place to go? Such questions, raised for a popular audience, beg for the charms of a Jacob Bronowski. Noted cosmologist/astrophysicist Primack has no end of scientific credentials; yet, tempered by the humanities-tending interests of mythologist/philosopher Abrams, the science here tends to go hortatory (“To act wisely globally, we must think cosmically”) and sometimes a touch fuzzy (“All young people today are moving as a group up the worldline of Earth’s lightcone,” whatever a worldline of a lightcone is). Still, there are illuminating views to be found here of how the universe behaves and what it consists of: Think a mix of 70 percent “dark energy,” 25 percent “cold dark matter” and a smattering of “visible atoms” and life-enabling gases, and it’s small wonder that many people felt lost when the old cosmologies of Egypt, Babylon and Greece gave way to the impersonal talk of Big Bangs, red giants, black holes and the like. Primack and Abrams grapple gently with those who feel it unacceptable “even to think of having a cosmology based on science” while taking their narrative into some odd corners of science: It may comfort some readers to know, for instance, that extraterrestrials are likely to resemble us thanks to “simple scaling relations,” but others will simply be puzzled by the notion of the “Cosmic Uroboros” and the magical workings of a sprinkling of stardust atop the “Cosmic Density Pyramid.”

The scientifically inclined will prefer a more rigorous explanation of why things are as they are.

Pub Date: April 7, 2006

ISBN: 1-594-48914-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2006

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.


A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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