Those who reject the idea of convergence outright may not get far in this book, but readers with no objection to a sweeping,...

CONVERGENCE

THE IDEA AT THE HEART OF SCIENCE

The journalist and polymath delivers a delightful exploration of “the deepest idea in the universe.”

Intellectual historian Watson loves big ideas and long books, and publishers keep publishing them and buyers buying them because they’re great reading—no exception here. After 600 pages of The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (2012), his new book takes on the history of scientific pursuits in just under 500 pages. Passing lightly over its history before the 19th century, the author maintains that discoveries of the conservation of energy and Darwinian evolution in the 1850s began a great convergence where the sheer mass of scientific knowledge has begun “to invade other areas, other systems of knowledge traditionally different from or even opposed to science, and is starting to explain—and advance—them. Science is…bringing order to philosophy, to morality, to history, to culture in general, and even to politics.” The “soft” sciences—i.e., psychology, economics, sociology—are growing “hard.” Ethologists studying animals have quantified the devastating effects of defective parental care, and child psychologists, formerly dependent on Freud, have taken note. Today, physicists advise investors, and historians and politicians ignore science at their peril—but do it anyway. The origin of life itself has moved from a hypothesis featuring implausible chemical reactions in ancient pools to a matter of convergence. Watson argues that life, as well as consciousness, culture, even morality, may be inevitable under certain conditions. Accepted in the scientific community, convergence remains controversial among philosophers, literary critics, and some sociologists who claim that scientific knowledge is overrated, culturally determined, and only one of many ways to describe reality.

Those who reject the idea of convergence outright may not get far in this book, but readers with no objection to a sweeping, entirely fascinating history of science during the last 200 years will find an abundance of enlightening material.

Pub Date: Feb. 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4767-5434-5

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2016

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • National Book Critics Circle Winner

LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more