Dense, but useful and up-to-date.



An authoritative history of our planet’s evolution.

Paleontologist Novacek (Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia, 2001, etc.), science provost at the American Museum of Natural History, seeks to help readers understand Earth’s past, the rise of the modern ecosystem and why human beings must act now to stem the damage they are inflicting on the environment. The world as we know it emerged 100 million years ago, he writes, with the appearance of the first flowering plants in the time of the dinosaurs (the Cretaceous period). Drawing on his own field work and recent discoveries in the fossil record, he describes in rich detail the biological processes that gave rise to the lush biota of the modern world. Pollination, for example, has produced wondrous flora in places from Sayreville, N.J., which has yielded fossilized plant parts from the Cretaceous, to present-day Vietnam, where forests and marshes harbor nearly 900 identified species of orchids. About 65 million years ago, he writes, the early flowering world was devastated when a Mount Everest–sized rock traveling at 22,000 miles per hour crashed into the Yucatan. The thermal blast kept temperatures at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit for hours and led to the mass extinction of 70 percent of land and sea species, including the dinosaurs. The greatest subsequent threat to biodiversity has been Homo sapiens, who appeared seven million years ago, began cultivating crops and have increasingly damaged the planet ever since through land degradation, overexploitation, invasive species and pollution. This overlong book will appeal especially to readers who share his fascination with the minutiae of biological connections: “nearly nine hundred bird species (including three hundred hummingbirds!) are pollinators.” The author also duly notes that we have the capacity but may lack the will and international leadership to slow the planet’s biological decline.

Dense, but useful and up-to-date.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-374-27325-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2007

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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

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

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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

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