With his usual flair McPhee embodies the driving spirit of geology's language—"crunching scum," "orogeny," "kettles," "kames"—in a running biography of Anita Harris, a plain-talking, practical-minded geologist who learned her earth science at Brooklyn College. Together the two head westward along Interstate 80, with stops at the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania coal and oil towns, then on to Ohio and Indiana. There is a nostalgic trip home too, a poignant remembrance of Williamsburg slums and a Coney Island girlhood. The result is a kind of journey within a journey, a personal narrative and a chance for Harris to speak long authoritative passages on the outcrops and morains, to pour hydrochloric acid on limestone, and in general to play geology lecturer to McPhee's invisible questions. Don't expect to come away with a working knowledge of geology, however. The lingo is thick and McPhee leaves a lot unexplained. Instead you get a sense of geological time condensed and encapsulated. As Harris says, "The goal of many geologists is to make time-lapse maps of earth history." You also get opinions. Harris is an outspoken critic of the "plate tectonic boys" for going too far. "It's a lazy man's out," she says, faulting the new breed of geologists for not getting out and getting the data. Rather, they make up stories of "exotic terrains" or occasionally "suspect terrains," clashing and colliding to give rise to the eastern American coastline, for example. Harris has a personal reason to rue the theorists because she hastily jumped on the bandwagon in an early paper that misinterpreted some paleontological findings; now she accepts the basic facts of seafloor spreading and ocean movements, but gets increasingly uneasy as plate tectonics is applied to inland areas. "But we can't altogether complain. Plate tectonics has turned people on. It has brought a lot of new people into geology." With Basin and Range (1981) and this latest excursion, McPhee has done the same thing, stylishly, for the general reader.

Pub Date: March 1, 1983

ISBN: 0374517940

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1983

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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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