More Adorno than Negroponte but of interest to students of contemporary first-world culture.

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THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL HUMAN

WAYS OF BEING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD

Is Airbnb the beginning of our end? Perhaps not, but, as this elegant meditation explores, it’s just one more sign of our sterile, disembodied times.

British social critic Scott’s (English and Creative Writing/Arcadia Univ.) essay on the disembodiment and dislocation that come with technology has promise, at first, of being a kind of manifesto of the sort Jaron Lanier might issue, but it soon settles into a coolly McLuhan-esque treatise, rich in reference to the likes of Virginia Woolf and Walter Benjamin, on our dematerialized condition. Whereas Lanier, for instance, might take an alarmed view of the political implications of a world in which “the moments of our lives audition for digitization,” Scott is more inclined to the existential and philosophical: we are both anonymous and exhaustively identified, seen and unseen, physical and virtual, isolated and connected, and, thanks to social media, everywhere at once. It is this last truth that lends credence to Scott’s fruitful notion that we are all suddenly four-dimensional beings who can escape the ordinary laws of physics that bound us to time and place: “Where do our bodies begin and end in a networked world?” The answer is a little scary: at least the images that Scott conjures of the 1950s sci-fi denizen known as 4D Man suggest that our newfound “ability to slip through solid objects” may not be altogether a good thing. On the other hand, it may not be bad, either. As Scott writes, the novelist A.S. Byatt has observed that even though modern passers-by seem to have their eyeballs glued to their phones, “overall they seem happier than strangers did in her earlier years.” Happier, perhaps, but certainly more tired, endlessly working to serve our technology. And more alike as well: Scott quotes Zadie Smith as noting that social media “can enforce uniformity,” shouting us down into a kind of digital sameness that, he adds, “inevitably entails a constricting of personality.”

More Adorno than Negroponte but of interest to students of contemporary first-world culture.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-35307-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: June 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2016

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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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