Lucid and concise descriptions and analyses of an active, creative mind fully engaged with the natural world.



A bright, brisk assessment of the scientific interests and contributions of the Sage of Monticello.

Thomson (Natural History/Univ. of Oxford; The Young Charles Darwin, 2009, etc.) begins in an unsurprising place—the 1962 White House dinner honoring America’s Nobel laureates (where JFK uttered that celebrated “when Jefferson dined alone” comment)—but he swiftly moves into less familiar terrain. The author establishes the scholarly conflict between the Comte de Buffon, who wrote more like a buffoon about the natural history of America (his conclusions were uncluttered by any visits) and Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia largely exposed the Frenchman’s ignorance. Thomson reminds us repeatedly of Jefferson’s eclectic intellectual interests—portraits of Bacon, Newton and Locke hung in Monticello—and of his massive personal library of some 6,500 works. The author also examines the significant influence of teacher William Small and of the future president’s obsession to own the most recent scientific equipment—from thermometers to telescopes. (All of these scholarly pursuits contributed to Jefferson’s great financial indebtedness.) Thomson is inexplicably wry about Jefferson’s relations with his slave Sally Hemings, but he is clear and precise about Jefferson’s science, noting how his devout belief in the Genesis Creation story limited his potential understandings of fossils and extinction. Later, Jefferson focused on mechanical devices, some of which are on display at Monticello. Thomson properly credits Jefferson for the scientific achievements of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he tells the story of how Clement C. Moore (“A Visit from Saint Nicholas”) accused Jefferson of atheism. He ends with a discussion of those Jeffersonian scientific ideas and discoveries that have endured.

Lucid and concise descriptions and analyses of an active, creative mind fully engaged with the natural world.

Pub Date: Nov. 27, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-300-18403-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

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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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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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