A useful addition to the history-of-science literature, emphasizing the importance of scholarly communication and...



Firsthand reports of the birth of modern plate tectonics, the once heretical, now governing theory of how the earth works.

Since at least the 16th century, writes historian of science and geologist Oreskes (History/Univ. of California, San Diego), earth scientists have observed “the jigsaw-puzzle fit of the continental edges,” whereby Africa nestles neatly into South America, western North America into eastern Asia. Theories of continental drift and crustal contraction accounted for some geomorphological phenomena, but only in the 1960s did scientists begin to accrue solid evidence for how such things actually worked—with most of such evidence gathered on the hitherto inaccessible floors of the deep oceans. Strikingly, the majority of those scientists, Oreskes observes, were attached to only four institutions worldwide—Cambridge University, the Columbia University Lamont Geological Observatory, Princeton University, and the University of California Scripps Institution of Oceanography. (Soviet scientists, hampered by an officially endorsed theory emphasizing “vertical tectonics,” would join the revolution only much later.) Though many of the principal theoreticians have since died, Oreskes gathers testimony from some important participants, among them Ron Mason (who analyzed the geomagnetic patterns on the ocean floor that provided “the first step in what eventually became a new global theory of the earth”), Frederick Vine (whose research provided proof of geologist Tuzo Wilson’s theory of the existence of the Juan de Fuca plate), Neil Opdyke (who studied reversals of the earth’s geomagnetic field), and David Sandwell (whose work in radio altimetry helped map the planet’s crustal structure). Most of their reminiscences, along with those of 14 other contributors, are written at a level accessible to nonspecialist readers, and the authors’ enthusiasm for the study of the earth and its ways overcomes the occasional thickets of geological terminology.

A useful addition to the history-of-science literature, emphasizing the importance of scholarly communication and verification.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-8133-3981-2

Page Count: 496

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2001

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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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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

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