A solid, absorbing background to what makes life possible.



An astrobiologist and planetary geologist delineates the development of life on Earth and then makes the leap into “life” elsewhere in the heavens.

In her debut, Preston proves to be a jaunty, upbeat, and highly curious writer. “Today,” she writes, “astrobiology works tirelessly to address the compelling mysteries surrounding extraterrestrial life, while embracing the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on this planet.” That is as neat a summary of this book as one will get. Though she admits that understanding the beginnings of life “isn’t pretty and is chemistry heavy,” she goes on to spell things out clearly, walking readers through physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, molecular biology, ecology, planetary science, geography, and geology. When she is walking on thin ice, she makes note (“let’s admit this up front—we do not know exactly how life got started”), covers what we do know (“the primitive Earth was wrapped inside a blanket of dense burning clouds and remained shrouded in darkness”), and makes some speculations. The author examines our bombardment from comets and icy bodies and offers a lucid discussion of the mind-stretching marvels of organic chemistry. She also writes engagingly about the importance of auroras, plate tectonics, and glaciation as well as the possibility of artificial intelligence becoming an existential threat. Researchers are constantly searching for planets similar to Earth, within the Goldilocks Zone, “a not-too-hot, not-too-cold orbital band around a sun where life-giving water can be liquid.” However, outside of this habitable zone may exist life forms beyond our ken, “extremophiles” and “polyextremophiles.” The best to consider are tardigrades, or water bears, which can survive prolonged blasts of radiation (as experienced in outer space), bottom-of-the-ocean pressure, and temperatures from minus 459 degrees fahrenheit to 300 degrees.

A solid, absorbing background to what makes life possible.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4729-2009-6

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2016

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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. 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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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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