An entertaining and educational review for anyone seeking to brush up on or build his or her knowledge—or, perhaps better,...

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WE HAVE NO IDEA

A GUIDE TO THE UNKNOWN UNIVERSE

How did we end up in “a nonbland universe full of structure” instead of somewhere else? No one can yet say: that’s the organizing principle of this lively, agnostic book on physics and its discontents.

Cham, an online cartoonist with a doctorate in robotics, and Whiteson (Experimental Particle Physics/Univ. of California, Irvine), who conducts research at the Large Hadron Collider, combine forces to explore all the things that we cannot say with any confidence about the universe in which we live, an engaging conceit for a book that wears its considerable learning lightly. One question is what the universe is made of, most of it what physicists call “dark matter” or “dark energy”—in fact, only about 5 percent of it is anything we can explain with our current knowledge. “Most of the universe is made of something else”: quite a daunting concept, and by the time Cham and Whiteson get around to explaining what happens, quantum mechanistically speaking, when a particle meets its antiparticle, it’s mind-bogglingly complex. That’s where the cartoons come in. Though the authors are occasionally silly—the notion of filling space with cilantro being one such moment—the overarching spirit is one of helpfulness. After reading this book, general readers without much background in physics will be able to speak knowledgeably about, for example, how quarks relate to leptons. But with a proviso, bearing in mind the book’s premise: yes, with up and down quarks we can make neutrons and protons, but what do the other nine of the dozen known particles do? Write the authors, “why are they there? We have no idea.” Indeed, we do not, but Cham and Whiteson brightly foresee a time in which we have the answers and “today’s philosophy questions are tomorrow’s precision science experiments.”

An entertaining and educational review for anyone seeking to brush up on or build his or her knowledge—or, perhaps better, lack of knowledge.

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1151-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 28, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2017

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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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