A tour-de-force by a talented young author who makes a difficult subject accessible.

Fast-paced history from debut author Gilder, who employs invented but historically accurate dialogue to surprisingly good effect, revealing the personalities as well as the ideas of quantum physicists.

Though generally viewed as a gigantic achievement of human genius, quantum physics, which describes the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, is also a troubling field. Its predictions have proven dazzlingly accurate, but they predict minuscule objects behaving in ways that everyone, physicists included, finds bizarre. In the subatomic world, observers can never locate an object precisely, only determine the probability that it will be in one place instead of another. Energy and matter behave as either solid particles or waves depending on the experiment performed. Most physicists were happy that quantum physics worked so well, but Einstein insisted that this relentless indeterminacy could not be true. In 1935, he and two co-workers devised the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky “thought experiment” (“thought” because it was considered technically impossible). If two subatomic particles are “entangled,” a state that obeys quantum laws, and then separated, changing one affects the other even if it’s very far away. Since this is clearly impossible, Einstein concluded that quantum theory was defective. Gilder, remarkably well-informed, delivers a comprehensive history that begins with early 20th-century giants Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Pauli. However, she differs from the authors of similar books in devoting even more space to less celebrated but equally brilliant physicists from the century’s latter half, including David Bohm, Anton Zeilinger and John Bell. Her inspiration is Bell, who died in 1990 before getting the Nobel Prize everyone agrees he deserved. His 1964 paper, showing that the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky experiment did not disprove quantum theory, inspired a generation of researchers who have clarified quantum physics without rendering it less bizarre. Although aimed at general readers, this work is less simplified than other popular accounts, but those who pay attention will find it highly rewarding.

A tour-de-force by a talented young author who makes a difficult subject accessible.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-4417-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2008



A quirky wonder of a book.

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. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020


Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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