BASIN AND RANGE

Peripatetic journalist extraordinary McPhee takes a close, lucid, resonant look at the modern scenery of the western US from the perspective offered by an understanding of geological processes. During the Triassic, some 200 million years ago, northeastern New Jersey was contiguous with northwestern Africa; the alpine Appalachians sprawled across both. As subcrustal forces began to separate the fledgling continents, the rocks faulted and shattered. Some blocks were uplifted, some sank; complicated by upwellings of molten magma, the area became "basin and range" country, of which today's remnants are the Palisades, the Newark basin, the Border Fault. McPhee's odyssey takes him, thereafter, along the continent-spanning Route 80—studying exposed landforms and rocks revealed by roadcuts, talking with geologists—toward a modern Basin and Range country: that physiographic territory between eastern California and eastern Nevada, geologically active, mineral-rich, structurally enormously complex. His chief mentor is Princeton geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes (whose introductory course is familiarly known as "Rocks for Jocks"). Along the way they discuss: James Hutton, founder of modern geological thought; the pioneers who crossed or died crossing the dry mountains and valleys of the Basin and Range; and, importantly, the recent revolutionary theory of plate tectonics—the notion that the Earth's surface is composed of rocky plates floating on the 200-mile-thick, hot, semisolid mantle. The relative motions of the plates build and drown mountains, open and close oceans, alter climate, affect lifeforms; as McPhee eloquently puts it, "The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone." His telling comparisons of geology before and after plate tectonic theory are with physics before and after Einstein, biology before and after Darwin. McPhee triumphs in his evocation of geological time. The denizens of mountainous Nevada, assured that their high desert will some day be a subtropical sea, are phlegmatic enough—"It'll be a change to have water here"; but the implications are ominous as well as awesome—"California will be an island. It is just a matter of time." In his usual spare prose (but in somewhat more than usually demanding scientific terms) McPhee succeeds in conveying the essence and excitement of the geologists' thinking.

Pub Date: April 29, 1981

ISBN: 0374516901

Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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