A prismatic and capacious story of evolution and why the imperative of species survival may lead to calamity.

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EVOLUTION AND THE FUTURE OF MANKIND

Wood explores the evolution of evolutionary theory and its connection to humans’ tendency to over-reproduce.

Wood proceeds step-by-step as he investigates our understanding of the world and the heavens, starting at the very basic—atomic structure, electromagnetism, animism, starry myths—and steadily accruing all the discoveries, conjectures, leaps of faith, inspired guesses, serendipities and theory building that led to the creation of evolutionary theory. He moves, at times breathlessly but with a sense of excitement and a touch of humor, from wild speculation to empiricism to theories based on an understanding of fundamental processes. Along the way, he points out the impediment of empirical illusion and smartly poses the who, what, where, when, how and why of his subjects. Though his intent is to not overburden the reader with detail, there is a monumental amount of material to cover and times arise when more particulars would have grounded the reader’s appreciation. Writing, “The Leyden jar solved the electricity storage problem by allowing the storage of large amounts of static electricity inside a compact object,” is a rickety infrastructure of understanding upon which to build. Considering the speed at which the author is traveling, there are inevitable mistakes—“the average man is 69 centimeters tall”—and confusions—how is it that species survival doesn’t require food or oxygen, and are not weeds and cockroaches as circumstantially “the ultimate development of evolution’s mandate to maximize the probability of species survival” as humans?—but they in no measure compromise the momentum Wood generates in documenting the power of evolutionary theory, the roles of reproductive variability and the consequences of the survival filter in the evolutionary generation process. Wood also manages to undercut creationism and intelligent design along the way. His suggestion that our species’ atypical sex drive feeds overpopulation is well reasoned, clearly presented and, importantly, falsifiable.

A prismatic and capacious story of evolution and why the imperative of species survival may lead to calamity.

Pub Date: July 19, 2010

ISBN: 978-1450241601

Page Count: 416

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2010

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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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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