It’s difficult to be turgid in a microessay (one paragraph to four, rarely five, pages); a few academics manage, but most...

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TODAY'S MOST INTERESTING AND IMPORTANT SCIENTIFIC IDEAS, DISCOVERIES, AND DEVELOPMENTS

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

ISBN: 978-0-06-256206-7

Page Count: 624

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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

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LAB GIRL

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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