Light science reading that informs while it entertains—good for dipping into and out of.



How animals are designed to make the most efficient use of physical principles in their struggle to survive.

Physics World magazine editor Durrani and Kalaugher, who has a doctorate in materials science, admit to “anthropomorphising” animal behavior in the interest of telling a good story, a smart decision that allows them to amply demonstrate how animals succeed in making physics work for them. Each of the chapters focuses on a specific area of physics—Heat, Forces, Fluids, Sound, Electricity and Magnetism, and Light—and the authors clearly explain the physical principles involved. Many of the examples they provide may seem counterintuitive. For example, a wet dog expends less energy removing moisture by shaking its fur than if it simply waited for the water to evaporate. This is because the cooling effect of evaporation requires the dog to expend energy to maintain its body temperature. As the authors write, “dog fur minimizes heat loss through conduction and convection. But if that fur is wet, the animal has to burn precious energy to stay warm enough for its body to work. No pooch is that daft, as you’ll know to your soggy cost if you’ve stood next to a dog that’s just bounded out of a river.” Though readers likely don’t frequently think about hornets, they will be surprised to learn that Oriental hornets have a natural solar cell that allows them to convert sunbeams into electricity. Durrani and Kalaugher also speculate about the multipurpose role of the peacock’s tail in the mating ritual. The colorful plumage is a sign of vitality that attracts mate-seeking females. Furthermore, recordings reveal that by rustling their tails, they make “a quieter, and more pleasing, shivering noise,” that accompanies their more raucous mating-related vocalizations. Another offbeat factoid—in a book full of them—is the way that elephants raise one foot from the ground in order to use their other three to triangulate vibrations.

Light science reading that informs while it entertains—good for dipping into and out of.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4729-1409-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


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

Did you like this book?