edited by John Brockman ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 7, 2017
It’s difficult to be turgid in a microessay (one paragraph to four, rarely five, pages); a few academics manage, but most...
The latest installment of the editor and literary agent’s near-yearly anthology of brief essays on a specific scientific theme or subject.
Brockman (Life: The Leading Edge of Evolutionary Biology, Genetics, Anthropology, and Environmental Science, 2016, etc.), publisher of the science website Edge.org, poses a question to a few hundred world intellectuals, mostly scientists. Perhaps because he is also a leading literary agent, most dutifully respond, including stars such as Freeman Dyson, Steven Pinker, and Lisa Randall. Here, Brockman reveals 197 delightfully short answers to the question, “what do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?” Readers of the first dozen will assume the answer is global warming until they realize that Brockman sorts them by topic, and dozens of physicists arrive to air their frustration with dark matter, dark energy, and quantum gravity as well as their disappointment with the great Large Hadron Collider. Other topics include the manipulation of genes, which has become dazzlingly easy; the innumerable planets that orbit distant stars; big data and artificial intelligence, both of which are exploding but not always in a good way. As usual, a minority of the contributors answer a question they’d prefer to answer or merely muse. Weather prediction has quietly become really accurate; the platinum rule (do unto others as they would have you do unto them) is superior to the golden. There are some jolts. An amazing number of published scientific studies can’t be reproduced, and cold fusion, long dismissed by the establishment, gets a good word. Among the dozens of well-known contributors are Mario Livio, Lee Smolin, Jared Diamond, A.C. Grayling, Alison Gopnik, and Amanda Gefter.It’s difficult to be turgid in a microessay (one paragraph to four, rarely five, pages); a few academics manage, but most deliver lucid intellectual hors d'oeuvres that deserve rereading.
Pub Date: Feb. 7, 2017
Page Count: 624
Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2016
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016
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A quirky wonder of a book.
A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.
Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.A quirky wonder of a book.
Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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by Bill Bryson ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2003
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
Page Count: 304
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003
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