Davies Lite, with much sleight of hand.


Best to bring a willing suspension of disbelief to this romp by Australian physicist and prolific science popularizer Davies (The Fifth Miracle, 1999, etc.).

Build a time machine? Sure, but first you have to construct a wormhole. And not just any wormhole, but an hourglass-shaped one with a neck wide enough to accommodate human girth and without gravity-crushing forces. (After all, you want to survive the trip.) And while you can travel into the future you can only go backward in time as far as the date the wormhole was built—no ecotourism in the dinosaur age, please. How-to? What you need is: (1) a collider of such magnetic megastrength that you can implode a quark-gluon bubble and create a teensy wormhole to warp spacetime; (2) an inflator to enlarge the hole (the trick here is to inject negative energy in the form of anti-gravity matter, maybe using a laser to “squeeze” light); and (3) a differentiator to create a time difference between entry and exit holes (one way is to use the twins paradox well known from relativity theory, then again apply the inflator to produce a human-accommodating wormhole). Of course, all this bizarreness is foil for Davies to wax eloquent on concepts he has covered in earlier works: general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, virtual matter (non-empty vacuums), parallel universes, as well as assorted time paradoxes. Here, he displays his usual glibness in a format gussied up with simple drawings and outline portrait sketches of the greats from Newton to Hawking. Indeed, one suspects a bit of not-so-cosmic book-inflation here. And there’s a disclaimer. On the one hand, Davies proclaims that, yes, all this is theoretically possible; on the other, he alludes to a theory called chronology protection in which all of the above is taboo.

Davies Lite, with much sleight of hand.

Pub Date: March 4, 2002

ISBN: 0-670-03063-5

Page Count: 128

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2002

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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