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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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

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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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

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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