An excellent preview of what may be the next big scientific breakthrough.



An up-to-the-minute look at the frontiers of the search for life outside Earth.

Washington Post science and space reporter Kaufman provides useful updates on the newly respectable field of astrobiology. Scientists in a variety of fields are finding evidence that humanity may well have company in the universe. The author begins by looking at extremophiles—living creatures in environments we thing would be hostile to life. Bacteria have been found in South African gold mines, in boiling water near volcanic outlets, high in the stratosphere in the Antarctic and even in arsenic-laden Lake Mono in California. Conditions on Mars may well have been quite favorable to the beginnings of life in the past. Meteorites of Martian origin appear to contain biological material, and an experiment conducted by the Viking Mars lander in 1975 detected what could be interpreted as biological activity. Neither result has been widely accepted, but there is plenty of further research to be performed. A key to finding extraterrestrial life is finding environments where it could thrive. In our own solar system, Mars and the Jovian moons still appear to hold promise, but the big question is whether other stars harbor Earth-like planets that could support life. Data from the Kepler space telescope appears to give an affirmative answer; still, some scientists argue that life beyond Earth will prove to be rare, and intelligent life even rarer. The search continues, nonetheless, using radio telescopes orders of magnitude better than when the Green Bank and Arecibo dishes were state of the art. Kaufman also explores the idea that the constants of physics—such as the weights of elementary particles—show a “fine tuning” without which the universe we know would be impossible. While the concept seems popular with cosmologists, its value for the search for life beyond Earth isn’t obvious. Still, by talking to many of the scientists whose results he describes, Kaufman provides an invaluable summary of the current state of research into extraterrestrial life.

An excellent preview of what may be the next big scientific breakthrough.

Pub Date: April 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4391-0900-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2011

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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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