Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER

JOHANNES VERMEER, ANTONI VAN LEEUWENHOEK, AND THE REINVENTION OF SEEING

A fine addition to the burgeoning genre of dual biography of great figures whose lives were related, if often distantly.

Snyder (Philosophy/St. John’s Univ.; The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World, 2010, etc.) chronicles the lives of two significant Dutchmen: Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), founder of microbiology, and his contemporary, painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Born almost simultaneously in 1632, they worked barely a block apart. Leeuwenhoek was executor of Vermeer’s estate after his death, but historians still debate whether they were more than just mere acquaintances. A prosperous merchant, Leeuwenhoek grew fascinated by lenses. Spectacles and magnifying glasses had existed for centuries and microscopes for decades, but the existing crude compound microscopes were limited to about a tenfold magnification. Using a technique he kept secret (only rediscovered in 1957), Leeuwenhoek made tiny glass beads that magnified 200 to 500 times. His microscopes were complex devices that were difficult to use, but through them, Leeuwenhoek discovered formerly invisible bacteria and other unknown organisms, flabbergasting but ultimately convincing Britain’s Royal Society, whose members read his letters, his only scientific publications. Aiming at an accurate depiction of nature, 17th-century Dutch painters were as obsessive in their studies as scientists. Snyder accompanies her biography of Vermeer with an intense, relentlessly detailed analysis of his technique and use of color, arguing that his sublime, luminous style accorded with the new optical theories. He certainly used technical devices, including the camera obscura, much as early scientists did to experiment with light and uncover its properties. “[A]rtists—like Vermeer—have always relied upon science and technology to push the limits of their arts,” writes the author, “and they will always do so, especially when science opens up a new way of seeing the world.”

Ingenious, lucid and revealing look at the lives of two brilliant men who changed our way of seeing the world.

Pub Date: March 16, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-07746-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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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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