There’s some chaff here, but also plenty of insights for the scientifically curious.



Scientists, futurists and other pundits ruminate on roads not taken and missteps along the way.

Marvin Minsky, the pioneering cognitive scientist, once said that anyone interested in getting at the real answer to a question had better keep an open mind: “You have to form the habit of not wanting to have been right for very long.” He added, perhaps unhelpfully, that most other people won’t aid in the quest, since they’re “ignorant savages.” The contributors to Brockman’s salon are more kindly disposed, but they gamely address the annual question to which Brockman (Digerati, 1996, etc.) puts them—in this case, as the title says, how they’ve shaken off dogmas, preconceptions and misconceptions to rethink the Big Questions of Life. The noted musician and technologist Brian Eno remarks that doing this is important, just as it’s important for consumers of information to be interested in getting the facts right. In the greater scheme of things, he opines, it doesn’t really matter how many words the Eskimos have for snow, but “it does matter if they believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.” In somewhat dour spirit, former hipster stalwart Stewart Brand, now approaching 70, discards his previous conviction that old things are authentic and desirable: “New stuff is mostly crap, too, of course. But the best new stuff is invariably better than the best old stuff.” With more depth, psychologist Steven Pinker rethinks his previous conviction that humans unhooked themselves from evolution at the dawn of agriculture; the findings of the Human Genome Project suggest otherwise. Neoconservative computer guru David Gelernter observes how smart he’s been all along about newfangled things such as cloud computing, owning to being wrong only about the public’s attitude to technology (“cautious but not reactionary”). And so on, ranging from the paradoxical and puzzling to the matter of fact (cyberspace is just a place to make a buck; the world is indeed warming).

There’s some chaff here, but also plenty of insights for the scientifically curious.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-06-168654-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2008

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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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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