Battlefield R&D is a topic too fascinating to ruin, so readers who can tolerate the author’s relentless flippancy will...

GRUNT

THE CURIOUS SCIENCE OF HUMANS AT WAR

A cannon fires grocery chickens at parked jets, testing ways to protect planes against bird strikes. Readers encountering this esoteric project on the first page will settle back to enjoy another patented scientific romp, this one on battlefield research, by journalist Roach (Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, 2013, etc.).

“For every general and Medal of Honor winner,” writes the author, “there are a hundred military scientists whose names you’ll never hear. The work I write about represents a fraction of a percent of all that goes on. I have omitted whole disciplines of worthy endeavor.” Roach reveals many of these names, however, along with the stories of their quests to shield soldiers from harm and, if this fails, repair the often gruesome results. Traveling from proving ground to lab to expensive, realistic fake battle settings, the author recounts and often participates as researchers search for better ways to protect soldiers from bullets, burns, explosions, noise, heat, sharks, insomnia, drowning, and disease. If all fails, the military wants to correct the consequences with better prostheses and surgical reconstructions of mutilated or missing body parts. Roach joins Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt in making a career of turning serious research on oddball subjects into bestsellers. But while Gladwell and Levitt aim to stimulate readers with unusual connections among subjects, Roach, the author of Stiff and Bonk, is mostly seeking laughs. She restrains herself when it’s inappropriate (an admirable chapter on repairing damaged penises) but never resists easy targets (blast-resistant underwear, the macho approach to diarrhea) and works hard to find humor wherever she turns. When material runs thin, the author inserts breezy anecdotes, descriptions of her surroundings, the scientists’ physiognomy, and the sufferings of a journalist willing to try anything.

Battlefield R&D is a topic too fascinating to ruin, so readers who can tolerate the author’s relentless flippancy will not regret the experience.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-393-24544-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

LAB GIRL

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

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more