In design and execution, every bit as worthy of the bridge it celebrates.



By California’s foremost historian, a paean to perhaps “the most beautiful bridge ever built.”

Upon its completion in 1937, San Francisco’s Golden Gate immediately took its place among the world’s greatest engineering and architectural feats. Its distinctive Art Deco towers, landscape-friendly International Orange and dramatic setting combined for a thrilling picture, perfectly symbolizing America’s Far West regional capital. The bridge had many godfathers, most prominently the city engineer who first called for its construction, the local chieftain who cleared the political path, the progressive banker who financed it and especially Joseph Strauss, the engineer/entrepreneur whose own design—“an upside-down rat trap,” said one opponent—gave way to the plan created by the brilliant team of consulting engineers, designers and architects he assembled. Starr (History/Univ. of Southern California; Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-63, 2009, etc.) discusses these and many other players, but don’t look here for the thorough detail or human drama captured so memorably in David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972). Instead, Starr sets a more delicate task, a jeweler’s assessment of the Brooklyn Bridge’s west coast rival. He neatly appraises the Golden Gate’s every facet, attempting to judge its qualities and to convey its essence, its singular “bridgeness.” The author tours the spectacular geography and recounts the history of its site, reflects on the bridge as an icon, reconstructs the vision that prompted its construction, details the political and financial obstacles overcome by its boosters, explains its design and follows the course of its building, remarks upon its central importance, functional and aesthetic, to the city, invokes the art it has inspired and muses upon the bridge’s dramatic allure for those contemplating suicide—all in remarkably few pages. If occasional passages feel hurried, few essentials feel left out, and Starr’s lyrical prose more than compensates for whatever’s missing in this appreciation of the “global icon” he so clearly loves.

In design and execution, every bit as worthy of the bridge it celebrates.

Pub Date: July 6, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59691-534-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Sept. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2010

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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 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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