Crisp, provocative entertainment for armchair scientists, and a solid survey for more serious readers.



A nimble chronological history of the transformation of sorcery and superstition into chemistry.

Strathern (Foucault in 90 Minutes, 2000, etc.) does not focus on a single figure (despite his title), but instead addresses the fluidity of ideas over spans of time and space, demonstrating how the systemic ordering of the elements (a breakthrough in understanding akin to gravity) was ultimately grasped. He weaves his story from historical strands, commencing with the beginnings of scientific thought and the “pre-science” of alchemy (popular for centuries despite censure). Simultaneously, he presents his narrative as inseparable from the volatile personalities of great scientists, beginning with Paracelsus—a swashbuckling 16th-century itinerant who, in synthesizing secret arts like alchemy and midwifery, may have been the first “emergent chemist.” The author demonstrates a keen eye for detail and a great affection for his subjects; these portraits are humorous and dramatic rather than dry. This is epitomized by the story of Giordano Bruno, who invented a revolutionary memory system only to be burned at the stake in 1600 under orders of Pope Clement VIII. The Inquisition aside, Strathern perceives a real jump forward in scientific development during the 17th century, sparked by such disparate achievements as Galileo’s perfection of the telescope, the reason-based philosophy of Descartes, and Francis Bacon’s “science of thought and practice” (which was primary in asserting the potentially enormous benefits of such experimentation for humankind). Finally, the author sees in the gnome-like, isolated figure of Mendeleyev a template both for the eternally lonesome scientific quest and for the structuring of chemical understanding (upon which biological understanding is predicated). He concludes by depicting Mendeleyev’s innovations in understanding and his 1869 “dream,” in which “ ‘the elements fell into place as required’ . . . the elements were listed in order of their atomic weights, their properties repeated in a series of periodic intervals.”

Crisp, provocative entertainment for armchair scientists, and a solid survey for more serious readers.

Pub Date: April 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-26204-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001

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

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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.



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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