A smorgasbord of ideas, best when judiciously sampled.




From a broad array of thinkers come answers to the question: “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

Every year, Brockman, a literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge, poses a challenging question to the diverse community of Edge contributors. The question posed in 2012, which asked responders to identify some simple, nonobvious idea that explains a complex set of phenomena, was suggested by Steven Pinker. The replies come from such familiar names as Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley and Eric Kandel; a few surprising ones, such as Brian Eno and Alan Alda; and many who are lesser known or unknown to the public but are established and influential in their fields. What remains unclear is why these particular answers were selected for publication. All answers are brief, most just two or three pages. Some of the respondents’ choices seem obvious—Darwin on the theory of evolution by natural selection and Freud on the unconscious—while others—the double-helix structure of DNA, the germ theory of disease, the Gaia hypothesis of planet Earth, the law of unintended consequences—will also already be familiar to many readers. Perhaps most surprising is neuroscientist Ernst Pöppel’s contribution: 20 linked haikus (“What is my problem? / I don’t need explanations! / I’m happy without!”). Not all are as entertaining, however, and general readers may struggle with the vocabulary of special fields—e.g.,  “Metarepresentations Explain Human Uniqueness” or “Hormesis Is Redundancy.” The sheer number of contributors and the broad scope of the book ensure that most readers will find topics to pique their interest, but that same feature means that many will find themselves flipping pages quickly. Other notable contributors include Sean Carroll, George Dyson, Clay Shirky, Stewart Brand, A.C. Grayling and Katinka Matson.

A smorgasbord of ideas, best when judiciously sampled.

Pub Date: Jan. 22, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-223017-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2013

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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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