Readers fond of such works as Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (2002) will find Cobb’s tale a pleasure.

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GENERATION

THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY SCIENTISTS WHO UNRAVELED THE SECRETS OF SEX, LIFE, AND GROWTH

Where do babies come from? If you’d been alive before 1650, you might never have known, as this instructive and pleasing history relates.

Cobb, a British biologist whose day job while writing was “studying the sense of smell in maggots—really,” here notes that the causal connections between anatomical equipment and usage and reproduction were not well understood before 1650; even Leonardo da Vinci got some of the most important details wrong, while the once-influential scientist Athanasius Kircher was sure that something alchemical was at work and offered up a recipe involving crushed maggots—really—and honey water to prove his point. “If you wanted to generate flies, Kircher’s procedure was sure to succeed,” Cobb writes. Flies relish such a dish indeed, but for reasons for which Kircher did not account, and it took the combined efforts of a generation of scientists from across Europe to overturn the old beliefs. Leiden University was a particularly effective hive of activity, blessed with a bibulous (the university “gave students an annual tax-free alcohol allowance of 194 litres of wine and around 1500 litres of beer”) but talented corps of scholars. Men such as Jan Swammerdam, Nils Stensen, Reinier de Graaf and Anton Leeuwenhoek, of various backgrounds and conditions, embodied the best aspects of the Dutch Golden Age, corresponding and visiting with their peers in other countries and gradually developing techniques and theories that underlie modern genetics, biochemistry and other disciplines. Not that their efforts weren’t start-and-stop: As Cobb notes, it took a while for even those great thinkers in that great era to link the “little animals” that lived inside semen to their role in fertilizing eggs. And yet, in time, “They showed us where we come from,” Cobb concludes.

Readers fond of such works as Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (2002) will find Cobb’s tale a pleasure.

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2006

ISBN: 1-59691-036-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2006

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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