Detailed and insightful, this book is as relevant as ever in this era of rapid climate change.

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THE WEATHER EXPERIMENT

THE PIONEERS WHO SOUGHT TO SEE THE FUTURE

In 1800, no one had a clue about what controlled “the heavens,” which made the unlikely science of meteorology one of the most remarkable accomplishments of the 19th century.

At the turn of the century, the unpredictability of weather was often devastating. Storms tore through cities and upended ships without mercy. These conditions were perfectly suited to the mostly divine theories about what controlled the weather. Despite the progress in fields including astronomy, geology, and physics, no one had yet unlocked the mysteries of the skies. This sets the scene for the arrival of an eclectic group of intrepid observers committed to decoding the weather. Moore (Damn His Blood: Being a True and Detailed History of the Most Barbarous and Inhumane Murder at Oddingley and the Quick and Awful Retribution, 2012) writes about this band of ad hoc scientists with brio, and it’s hard not to be awed and charmed by their united “quest to prove that earth’s atmosphere was not chaotic beyond comprehension, that it could be studied, understood and, ultimately, predicted.” This diverse group shared a naturalist bent, and they included adventurers, sailors, engineers, chemists, inventors, and artists. The author argues that perhaps the most notable figure was Robert FitzRoy, who famously captained Darwin’s Beagle. An enigmatic and complex man, he went on to forge the analytical and social foundations of meteorology. By the 1860s, a vocabulary that categorized weather patterns had begun to codify, and the first storm warnings and weather forecasts were introduced. Enhanced by a revolutionary new technology, the telegraph, the weather shifted from an experience that always occurred in the present to a hotly discussed topic that transcended time and place. Moore complements chapters of readable scientific history with lyrical interludes reminding us that, even when deconstructed, the harmonies of the natural world cannot be contained.

Detailed and insightful, this book is as relevant as ever in this era of rapid climate change.

Pub Date: June 2, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-86547-809-1

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 1, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2015

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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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