An admirable complement to the author’s previous book and equally satisfying for those willing to read carefully.

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD—SO FAR

Having recounted the mechanics of the big picture in A Universe from Nothing (2012), theoretical physicist Krauss (Director, Origins Project/Arizona State Univ.) delivers a companion volume that fills in the little—often very little—stuff.

Throughout human history, all cultures explained, usually incorrectly, the cosmos, our visible world, and man itself, but, as the author writes, “humanity took a major step toward modernity when it dawned on our ancestors’ consciousness that there is more to the universe than meets the eye.” From electromagnetism and the concept of space-time, which makes sense, to the minuscule quantum world, which doesn’t, these are not in short supply. Although no true believer, Krauss launches with “in the beginning there was light” but adds that gravity deserves equal billing before proceeding with a rich, definitely not-dumbed-down history of physics. Newton and Galileo revealed how things moved, but no individual achievement is likely to surpass Einstein’s; he improved the picture with a spectacular unification of space, time, and gravity. Krauss slows after the period around 1920, when quantum mechanics revealed new, confusing phenomena, and matters have not improved much since, as physicists struggle, with varying success, to explain an oddball collection of particles and forces, culminating in the discovery of the Higgs particle by the most complicated machine every built, the Large Hadron Collider. This revealed that physicists were more or less on the right track but faced plenty of unanswered questions. Krauss has never been one to reduce science to a Nova-style magic show, so readers will need to maintain close attention to properly absorb his explanations of concepts such as the weak force, Higgs field, and symmetry breaking.

An admirable complement to the author’s previous book and equally satisfying for those willing to read carefully.

Pub Date: March 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4767-7761-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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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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