Not everything is as easy as pie (or pi) to grasp, and therein lies the excitement and challenge of science, masterfully...

THE CANON

A WHIRLIGIG TOUR OF THE BEAUTIFUL BASICS OF SCIENCE

Decrying smug scientific illiteracy, New York Times science writer Angier (Woman, 1999, etc.) deftly sets forth the universally accepted principles underlying basic science that everyone should understand.

This bestselling author’s love of words is writ large here. Hardly a page goes by without an internal rhyme (“sirs and madams we’re all made of atoms”), or an unexpected adjective (a gecko with a nose of “Necco pink”), or a blunt descriptor (the living cell is squishy like snot) that sets up a what-will-she-say-next? tease. A snappy style is simply her way of making sure we pay attention as Angier presents chapters on thinking scientifically, probability, scales of measurement, physics, chemistry, evolution, molecular biology, geology and astronomy, all of them liberally laced with juicy quotes from the powerhouses she’s interviewed. The chapter on evolution alone is worth it, providing ample evidence to confront creationists and their intelligent-design offspring. Against the intelligent-designers’ argument of “irreducible complexity”—the idea that, for example, the intricate blood-clotting mechanism found in vertebrates is just too complex to have evolved through “clunky” natural selection—she places biologist Kenneth Miller’s analysis of the far cruder and simpler clotting process in invertebrates: “exactly the kind of ‘imperfect and simple’ system that Darwin regarded as a starting point for evolution.” Dentists will love the chapter on molecular biology, which begins with a description of the scrupulous dental hygiene Angier practices as part of her never-ending battle against the oral bacteria assaulting tooth enamel. Such graphic, homely examples serve as springboards for the deeper stuff, whether it’s the genetic code or the ever-expanding universe. She even makes it clear why it’s hard to get your arms around the idea that galaxies are not exploding outward into space, but that space itself is stretched.

Not everything is as easy as pie (or pi) to grasp, and therein lies the excitement and challenge of science, masterfully conveyed here.

Pub Date: May 8, 2007

ISBN: 0-618-24295-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2007

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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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

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