A fine pop-science account of elements that “are rewriting the laws of atomic structure.”

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SUPERHEAVY

MAKING AND BREAKING THE PERIODIC TABLE

Perhaps the first popular-science exploration of the weird world of huge, unstable, laboratory-generated elements.

In his debut, British journalist and broadcaster Chapman first explains that elements from one (hydrogen) to 92 (uranium) exist in nature. Transuranium elements (greater than 92) are produced in nuclear explosions, nuclear reactors, or nuclear accelerators. All are unstable—i.e., radioactive—so they gradually break down, and the heavier they are, the quicker they disappear. This is no problem for plutonium, element 94, which is only mildly radioactive, and Chapman describes the huge industry that generates tons for use in bombs and nuclear power. Just beyond plutonium (Americium, Curium, Berkelium, Californium…), they can be produced in visible quantities and are found in X-ray spectrometers and smoke detectors. Those after Einsteinium (element 99) exist in microscopic amounts and have no commercial use, but they continue to fascinate groups of researchers, including one formerly led by Chapman’s hero, Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg (1912-1999), who discovered 10. Based in California, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, these groups compete fiercely to generate heavier elements, often in minuscule quantities, study their properties, and quarrel over who was first. The book’s title refers to elements after 103, which are increasingly hard to produce in vanishingly small quantities but hold out the possibility of an “island of stability,” a massive atom that reverses the trend toward increasingly fleeting existence. “The superheavy elements—elements from 104 and beyond—might last for seconds, but that’s what makes them so cool,” he writes. “When an atom of a superheavy element is created, it is probably the only atom of that element in existence in the universe.” Chapman has done his homework, traveled the world to interview a colorful fraternity of scientists, and delivered an entertaining account of their struggles to create elements that have never existed and that may or may not reveal spectacular new features.

A fine pop-science account of elements that “are rewriting the laws of atomic structure.”

Pub Date: Aug. 27, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4729-5389-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: May 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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...

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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