Thoughtful, often surprising, smoothly written.

NAPOLEON’S BUTTONS

HOW 17 MOLECULES CHANGED HISTORY

Two scientists entertainingly explore the intersections between chemistry and history, such as the French army uniform buttons made of tin, which crumbles to dust in low temperatures, that some scholars blame for the failure of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.

In their very brief introduction, Le Couteur (Chemsitry/Capilano College, British Columbia) and industrial chemist Burreson outline the basics of molecular structures, emphasizing how much difference even an apparently tiny alteration can make. The bulk of the text consists of 17 chapters devoted to individual molecules or related groups of molecules, natural as well as synthetic, covering almost every area of human activity. Peppers, nutmeg, and cloves set off a wave of explorations and conquests beginning in the late Middle Ages and ending with European colonies around the globe. The discovery of ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C, made possible the long voyages that solidified the colonial powers’ grip on their empires. Nitro compounds, in particular gunpowder and other explosives, are key ingredients in the change from the stylized combat of medieval warfare to the bombs and rockets of today. Other chemicals made their impact closer to home: mauve, the synthetic dye that named a decade; and nylon, which changed the face of women's fashions. The addictive chemicals nicotine, morphine, and caffeine have played sinister roles in the oppression of native peoples in several parts of the world, but so have cellulose and sucrose, the central molecules of cotton and sugar. Many chemical substances have had ambiguous histories; the insecticide DDT, now outlawed in much of the world, contributed greatly to the virtual disappearance of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria from developed countries. The authors unearth a wealth of anecdotes from all parts of the world and use them effectively to illustrate the technological underpinnings of modern society.

Thoughtful, often surprising, smoothly written.

Pub Date: May 1, 2003

ISBN: 1-58542-220-7

Page Count: 384

Publisher: TarcherPerigee

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2003

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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