An excellent treatment of one of the early chapters of the Cold War.

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SPUTNIK

THE SHOCK OF THE CENTURY

The devastating impact of a Soviet satellite on the American public in the ’50s.

When Sputnik was put into orbit on October 4, 1957, Leave It to Beaver was first airing on TV. The juxtaposition of these two images—one of Communist technological superiority, the other of American gee-whiz innocence—is journalist Dickson’s structural theme here. The US, like the Soviet Union, raided Nazi Germany after 1945, removing scientific equipment and personnel for re-use in the Cold War. That the Soviet Union was the first to exploit this science comes as no surprise to Dickson, who credits Sputnik with giving the complacent US the wakeup call it needed to advance in the space race. American scientists and the US military scoffed at scientist Robert Goddard, who could have vaulted the country in front of all others in the field of rocket technology. While his work was given little support, Germans and Soviets were studying and building on his designs. After the war, as the Americans and Soviets dissected German rockets, the US still didn’t take the technology seriously. The army, navy, and air force all had their own missile programs, with the army’s team under former Nazi Wernher von Braun probably being the most advanced and the most overlooked. With the launching of Sputnik, everything changed. Whereas US rockets could barely reach the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the Soviet Union had placed in space an object that flew over North America several times a day. In an era when nuclear war seemed imminent, the military saw the importance of such devices for spying on the enemy. Von Braun and others were given the green light. On a larger level, the American public also got into the act: it rejected decadent cars like the Edsel and advocated advanced science curriculums in the schools. The Internet even owes its existence to Sputnik, the author claims—precursors to the Web were created by rocket researchers.

An excellent treatment of one of the early chapters of the Cold War.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2001

ISBN: 0-8027-1365-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Walker

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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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...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

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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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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