AFTERGLOW OF CREATION

FROM THE FIREBALL TO THE DISCOVERY OF COSMIC RIPPLES

This account of the scientific work that has created our modern picture of the origins of the universe was a best-seller in Britain; it deserves to be equally popular here. Chown, the cosmology consultant for New Scientist, begins by showing how scientists concluded that at some time in the distant past the universe, then very tiny, exploded. George Gamow was among the first to explore the consequences of the ``Big Bang,'' especially the fact that the early universe would have had an extremely high temperature. Two of Gamow's research students pointed out (in 1948) that the original explosion would in theory be detectable today as a residual layer of energy throughout the universe. More than 15 years passed before anyone attempted the measurement. Ironically, two teams worked on it within a few miles of each other—one at Princeton, the other at Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, N.J. The Bell team, composed of Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, made the key discovery in 1965 and won the Nobel Prize for it. But a subtler measurement remained to be made. Theory implied that the Big Bang radiation would show irregularities—``ripples,'' as they were dubbed—to account for the present structure of the universe, which is far from uniform. In one of the largest scientific team efforts ever assembled, the COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) satellite was created to attempt the measurements, which Chown describes as the most difficult ever made. After rigorous testing, several redesigns, and unprecedented difficulties, COBE was launched. The results were stunning—including a measurement of the cosmic background radiation that matched the theoretical predictions within 0.25 percent. Chown concludes his account with a description of the resulting publicity and wrangling among team members who felt that one team leader, George Smoot (who had described a ``map'' of the ripples as ``like seeing the face of God''), was hogging the spotlight. A lucid account of the key developments in modern cosmology, especially good at capturing the human dimension of scientific work.

Pub Date: July 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-935702-40-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 1996

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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