UNRAVELING PILTDOWN

THE SCIENCE FRAUD OF THE CENTURY AND ITS SOLUTION

A new theory on the culprit behind the Piltdown Hoax—in which a fraudulent early human fossil was foisted on the scientific establishment—is at the heart of this lively book. Walsh (This Brief Tragedy, 1991, etc.), an Edgar-winning unraveler of real-life mysteries, begins with a succinct summary of the 1913 discovery, in an English gravel pit, of parts of a skull and jawbone—the purported remains of an early hominid. The discovery was a sensation, both because no early human fossils had previously been uncovered in Britain and because the apelike character of the jaw was in stark contrast to the modern-looking skull. The fossil was dubbed ``Piltdown Man,'' after the locale of its discovery, and proudly offered as evidence of the antiquity of the human race in Britain. It wasn't until 1952 that new tests revealed the fossil to be a forgery. Ever since, speculation has raged over the identity of the perpetrator and his probable motives. Walsh offers a solution based on what he feels are the incontrovertible facts of the case. He briefly considers the cases against nearly a dozen suspects (including Martin Hinton, recently identified by another researcher as the probable hoaxer), dismissing them all as based on speculation. Three major figures receive detailed scrutiny: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who lived nearby), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who assisted the original fossil hunt), and Sir Arthur Keith (an anatomist). After clearing these three suspects, the author turns the spotlight on Charles Dawson, the local amateur who first reported the fossil, who was present at all the key Piltdown discoveries, and whose scientific credentials apparently rested upon a series of frauds parallel in many ways to the Piltdown imposture. Walsh convincingly argues that no other suspect had as clear an opportunity to commit the fraud. An informative and well-documented discussion of the famous case, which may not end the Piltdown argument, but which will certainly influence the debate in the future. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-44444-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1996

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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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