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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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