Gribbin, assisted by his occasional co-author Mary, tops himself with this one-volume summary of the current state of scientific knowledge. Author of numerous science books for the layperson (The Search for Superstrings, Symmetry, and the Theory of Everything, 1999), Gribbin steps back to show the broad perspective of what science knows about the universe, from the subatomic level up. After stating the central principle of science (“If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong”), Gribbin begins with the concept of atoms and elements, which led to much of modern science. As useful as the atomic hypothesis was, it wasn—t until Einstein that it was widely accepted as a factual description of reality. By that point, there was a growing body of evidence that the atom itself was a complex entity, made of smaller particles. The activity of one of those particles—the electron—is responsible for all of chemistry. Thence Gribbin leads the discussion to organic chemistry, through the structure of DNA, and thus to genetics and evolution. In such small but closely connected steps, the discussion goes on to geology and the history of the Earth, to astronomy and stellar evolution, all the way to cosmology and the structure of the universe as a whole. Gribbin is quick to make connections among the various sciences he discusses: for example, the simple quantum mechanical reason for the vital fact that ice floats—without which life as we know it would certainly be impossible. He smoothly introduces anecdotes about the scientists responsible for various theories and discoveries, and draws usefully on everyday experience to illustrate his material. And while he provides sufficient detail to give the various subjects immediacy, his eye is always on the big picture—how the world fits together and what it means to each of us. A definitive treatment of the subject, clearly and elegantly written. If you’re going to own just one general science book, you’d do well to make it this one.
Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1999
Page Count: 240
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2000
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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
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...
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Best Books Of 2016
New York Times Bestseller
Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.
These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.
Pub Date: March 1, 2016
Page Count: 96
Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015
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