Ferreira does not downplay relativity’s complexity and avoids the easy route of oversimplifying it into a cosmic magic show....

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THE PERFECT THEORY

A CENTURY OF GENIUSES AND THE BATTLE OVER GENERAL RELATIVITY

Ferreira (Astrophysics/Univ. of Oxford; The State of the Universe: A Primer in Modern Cosmology, 2006, etc.) writes an enthusiastic and comprehensible popular account of how Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity continues to generate new knowledge as well as hints of more secrets to be revealed.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity may be the greatest discovery in science. It’s the key to understanding the history of the universe, the nature of time, stars, galaxies and matter itself. With the dramatic 1919 announcement confirming the theory’s prediction that gravity bends light rays, Einstein became a media superstar, and physicists began a search for other predictions that continues to this day. Everyone during that time, Einstein included, assumed that stars and galaxies drifted at random. Several physicists pointed out that his equations indicated an expanding universe. Reluctantly, Einstein finally agreed. Others calculated that when a large, aging star collapses, gravity shrinks it into an infinitely dense point outside of time and space: a black hole. However, Einstein never accepted that. During the 1920s, many physicists turned their attention to quantum mechanics and nuclear physics, which, unlike relativity, had vivid consequences. Only with the 1950s did a new generation return to the research. Simultaneously, astronomers began discovering phenomena that required relativity, including quasars, neutron stars, gravitational lenses, dark matter, energy and black holes. The perfection of Einstein’s theory remains; none of its predictions have been proven wrong, but the stubborn refusal of gravity to unite with all other natural forces remains a frustrating problem.

Ferreira does not downplay relativity’s complexity and avoids the easy route of oversimplifying it into a cosmic magic show. The result is one of the best popular accounts of how Einstein and his followers have been trying to explain the universe for decades.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-547-55489-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2013

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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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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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