A great outline of the subject, bringing what's often treated as science fiction down to Earth, where it can be understood.

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FIVE BILLION YEARS OF SOLITUDE

THE SEARCH FOR LIFE AMONG THE STARS

Science writer Billings debuts with this examination of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and the surprising perspective it provides in thinking about mankind and the deep-time history of Earth.

The author bases his work on interviews and discussions with leaders from successive generations of the quest to find extraplanetary life. Frank Drake, who was an organizer of the original 1961 conference that set parameters for the project, concluded that “the universe, on balance, was a rather hospitable place, one that surely must be overflowing with living worlds.” Among the participants was Carl Sagan, who would go on to popularize the search through his PBS show Cosmos. In 1989 and 1990, Sagan showed that the technological methods then employed could discriminate the Earth from the moon using the scanning devices on NASA probes. Billings' interlocutors include, among others, Greg Laughlin, who worked on “the wealth of Neptune-mass planets” revealed by NASA's Kepler project, and James Kasting, who developed models that could assist in the extrapolation of information about the composition of exoplanets, planetlike objects orbiting distant stars, from data received. These scientists have extended technology's frontiers and enabled motion at a scale of 1 meter per second on the surface of a star many light years away to be detected and analyzed. Now, exoplanets can be cataloged in the thousands, their compositions analyzed. Billings’ accounts of arguments about inferences drawn, and even the existence of objects apparently observed, are fascinating. Kasting and Laughlin both provide insight on the geological and biological history of Earth, as well as current thinking about how life, and intelligence, may have developed. Billings documents how arbitrary changes in political priorities and funding reductions have wreaked havoc with the research.

A great outline of the subject, bringing what's often treated as science fiction down to Earth, where it can be understood.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-1617230066

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Current

Review Posted Online: July 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

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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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