The final entry in McPhee's four-volume hymn to geology, known collectively as Annals of the Former World (most recently Rising from the Plains, 1986). Most of this volume appeared previously in The New Yorker. McPhee again displays his talent for explaining, without denaturing, technical matters that could make most heads reel. This time, he and geologist Eldridge Moores clamber around California and the Southwest, with junkets to Macedonia and Cyprus, to observe how the earth as we know it came to be. The investigation spans years; as it proceeds, McPhee makes geological obscurities simple and geological grotesqueries lovely. We see how pieces of earth fused to form California; among other things, this book is a Festschrift for the theory of continental drift—the idea that chunks of earth separate or collide, creating continents, mountain chains, gulfs. Moores reads road cuts like thumbprints; near the Donner Pass, he spots the outcropping of a quadrillion-ton chunk of granite humped under California. The 1848 California gold rush is detailed, a period when human time (measured in lifetimes) and geological time (measured in cons) conjoined, and yellow nuggets the size of shoe boxes fell out of streams. McPhee muses much on these two time streams, which also merge in the terror of earthquakes. The book's finest passage is a step-by-step retelling, as if in slow-motion, of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, hideous in its eeriness ("In Asbury Heights, a man is watering his patch of grass. He suddenly feels faint, his knees weaken, and his front lawn flutters like water under wind") but doing nothing to postpone the dreaded Big One To Come. McPhee's overall lesson? That history is the bridesmaid of geology—and that the earth is a prankster. The author offers this wonderful testimony to the weirdness of plate tectonics: "The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." Intolerable if one has no taste for mysteries beneath the soil; otherwise, riveting.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-374-10645-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1992

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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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