“Are we alone in the universe?” has no answer yet, but Cooper delivers an enlightening exploration of the question.



An overview of the search for intelligence on distant planets.

In his first book, Cooper, science writer and editor of Astronomy Now, emphasizes that the universe teems with extrasolar planets, but evidence of life remains out of reach, to the frustration of almost everyone, including scientists working at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, which has been looking for more than 50 years. The sci-fi trope of the evil alien has largely fallen out of fashion. From the hit movie ET to Congress, which killed SETI funding in 1993, almost everyone today agrees that intelligence on distant planets is worth searching for. Traveling the world, Cooper chronicles his interviews with scientists and scholars who discuss how to do it and what we might find, if anything. Throughout, the author is free with his own opinions, and there is no shortage of surprises, the first of which is the chapter on altruism. Why should extraterrestrial visitors have benign intentions? “Our present beliefs about alien civilizations are built on the basis of taking the best parts of our humanity and extrapolating them into the future,” writes Cooper. “It’s an easy trap to fall into.” He reminds readers of the disastrous history of human explorers who encountered strange cultures. Do smart aliens even exist? Experts can’t decide if—like an elephant’s trunk or giraffe’s neck—intelligence is a chance byproduct of evolution or a regular feature such as eyes, limbs, or wings. Cooper recounts the debate between “rare Earth” experts who believe we may be unique with those who disagree, but it remains an area of pure (and frustrating) speculation. Discussions on technical aspects of searching contain more satisfying answers. Provided distant aliens possess transmitters an order of magnitude more powerful than ours, today’s receivers can detect the signal. Sending an actual message—as opposed to a mere signal—requires vastly more power.

“Are we alone in the universe?” has no answer yet, but Cooper delivers an enlightening exploration of the question.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-4729-6042-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Oct. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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

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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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