An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science.

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THE PRICE OF ALTRUISM

GEORGE PRICE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF KINDNESS

The strange story of an oddball scientist who developed a mathematical approach to understanding altruism.

By the end of his life, George Price (1922–75), a University of Chicago doctorate in chemistry and “forgotten American genius,” was homeless in London, writes Harman (Science, Technology, and Society/Bar Ilan Univ., Israel; The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darling, 2004). Price had worked as a chemist, economist, writer, mathematician, psychologist and physiologist, pursuing new ideas and theories for such organizations as the Manhattan Project, IBM and Bell Labs. As an independent scientist, he penetrated the origins of altruism deeper than ever before. In this stylish, demanding biography, the author draws on papers and interviews to re-create the personal and scientific life of this quirky, unorthodox loner. Harman places Price in the tradition of scientists like Darwin, T.H. Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, B.F. Skinner and W.D. Hamilton, who have studied the origins of human kindness. In particular, Price sought to learn whether, in the face of self-interested behavior, true selfless altruism exists. His “Price equation,” which specifies “the exact conditions under which the good of the group would upstage the good of the individual,” remains a crucial tool for understanding aspects of evolution. (Harman’s explication of the equation—in both text and appendices—may elude lay readers.) By 1970, a recent convert from atheism to Christianity, Price was pursuing the life of a true altruist, giving all his possessions to the poor and trying to rescue the homeless. But he failed to change the lives of the homeless, and Price, long depressive, sank further into despair and eventually committed suicide. Harman makes a strong case for the maverick scientist’s brilliance, noting that Hamilton called Price an intellectual Sherlock Holmes. He also demonstrates how Price’s insights overwhelmed many, from his teachers and classmates at New York’s Stuyvesant High School to a Nature editor who once rejected a submission with the comment, “It is too hard to understand.”

An intriguing history for serious students of the history of science.

Pub Date: June 7, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-393-06778-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 8, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2010

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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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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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