THE CREATIVE MOMENT

HOW SCIENCE MADE ITSELF ALIEN TO MODERN CULTURE

Former physics professor Schwartz offers a captivating history of the progressive alienation between Western culture and its scientists—an unnatural split that, he says, can be blamed for, among other things, modern technological disasters, cultural malaise, and the physics-propelled cold war. There was a time, Schwartz writes, when the pursuit of science meant the exploration of humanity's relationship to the natural world. This golden age, when experiments could be (and were) replicated and discussed by practically any educated person, and when theories were inspired by experience rather than the other way around, is now long gone. Beginning with Galileo, who attempted to avoid excommunication by veiling his heretical theories behind the baffling language of mathematics, and continuing in England, where Newton and other Royal Society members retreated behind a wall of intentional mystification to avoid political censure, science has become nearly incomprehensible to almost everyone—including, in some instances, scientists themselves. Schwartz also argues that 20th-century industrialization, economic disasters, and war have led the middle class to turn its back on the once-abundant fruits of science—an act that has encouraged the discipline to grow increasingly compartmentalized and self-referential. In this atmosphere of mutual alienation between science and culture, nuclear physicists failed to make a timely connection between their work on the atom bomb and the cold war that would inevitably result; Einstein's easily comprehensible and culturally significant theories were eclipsed by a quasi-mystical worship of his personal genius; the absence of meaningful interaction between the designers of technology and its users led to the Challenger disaster and deaths in industry; unexamined scientific prejudice may have obscured the real causes of cancer and AIDS; and theoretical scientists' increasing dependence on esoteric mathematics has led to an arcane physics of quarks and string theory that offers little to benefit mankind. An original and highly stimulating argument in favor of bringing science and scientists back down to earth.

Pub Date: May 6, 1992

ISBN: 0-06-016788-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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...

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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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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