A delicious addition to the "Big Question" genre.

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

SEVEN JOURNEYS TO THE FRONTIERS OF SCIENCE

Are there limits to human knowledge? Philosophers and religious thinkers have long answered “yes” and then provided examples that turned out to be wrong. A renowned mathematician argues that “yes” might very well be correct.

Du Sautoy (Public Understanding of Science/Oxford Univ.; The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey through Everyday Life, 2011, etc.) sets himself a difficult task: “to know whether there are things that, by their very nature, we will never know.” He asks, “despite the marauding pace of scientific advances, are there things that will remain beyond the reach of even the greatest scientists, mysteries that will remain forever part of the great unknown?” Readers will thoroughly enjoy his successful effort, which avoids the pitfalls of predicting specifics by addressing general areas. Empty space cannot exist; it’s impossible to know the simultaneous location and speed of anything; particles sometimes behave like pure energy. This is true of everything but becomes obvious at the level of atoms and smaller. It’s called quantum mechanics, a murky subject that nobody understands fully. The most powerful computer can’t forecast a traffic jam or the weather beyond a few weeks because a small change at the beginning may produce enormous, unpredictable changes later. This is chaos theory, an implacable barrier. Deconstructing time and determining the size of the universe remain out of reach, but the mechanism of consciousness, once the poster boy of impossibility, now seems the inevitable product of increasingly advanced studies in neuroscience. The author concludes with his own field, which, unlike science, can prove statements absolutely. Infinity, once considered beyond comprehension, turns out to be full of interesting qualities, and parallel lines often meet, but mathematicians have shown that many statements and entire areas of mathematics are unprovable.

A delicious addition to the "Big Question" genre.

Pub Date: April 11, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2180-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Feb. 22, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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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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