UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW

SCIENCE, DELUSION, AND THE APPETITE FOR WONDER

Dawkins takes to heart his title of Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford in this thoughtful exegesis on the nature of science and why its detractors are all wrong. More with pity than anger, he takes Keats to task for faulting “cold philosophy” for unweaving the rainbow in the long poem “Lamia.” On the contrary, Dawkins observes, Newton’s use of a prism to split white light into the spectrum not only led to our understanding of how rainbows form in raindrops, but enabled astronomers to read the make-up of stars. Dawkins devotes a few chapters to debunking astrology, magic, and clairvoyance, arguing that, as rational adults, we need to be critical about ideas. This notion serves him handily in chapters on coincidence: He explains the exacting calculations of probabilities to show that coincidences aren—t so unusual. Yet people have a penchant for finding patterns where there are none, which leads Dawkins also to address superstitions, the class of errors known as false positives and false negatives, and a wealth of cultural practices from rain dances to human sacrifice. He takes to task what he calls bad poetic science, in which he includes the theories of his rival Stephen Jay Gould in relation to what Gould sees as the three perennial questions in paleontology: Does time have a directional arrow? Do internal or external forces drive evolution? And does evolution occur gradually or in jumps? The spleen’s so heavy here that one can anticipate a debate, if not a duel. Final chapters provide him with a platform for reweaving the rainbow, enlarging on his earlier themes and metaphors in relation to memes, genes, and evolution. The speculative writing here is less rooted in complex gene analysis than in philosophy of the Dennett school. A sharp mind is much in evidence, delighting in exposing fraud, providing instruction, baiting a colleague, and indulging in his own high-wire acts of evolutionary dreaming.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-395-88382-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1998

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Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

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EDISON

One of history’s most prolific inventors receives his due from one of the world’s greatest biographers.

Pulitzer and National Book Award winner Morris (This Living Hand and Other Essays, 2012, etc.), who died this year, agrees that Thomas Edison (1847-1931) almost certainly said, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” and few readers of this outstanding biography will doubt that he was the quintessential workaholic. Raised in a middle-class Michigan family, Edison displayed an obsessive entrepreneurial spirit from childhood. As an adolescent, he ran a thriving business selling food and newspapers on a local railroad. Learning Morse code, he spent the Civil War as a telegrapher, impressing colleagues with his speed and superiors with his ability to improve the equipment. In 1870, he opened his own shop to produce inventions to order. By 1876, he had money to build a large laboratory in New Jersey, possibly the world’s first industrial research facility. Never a loner, Edison hired talented people to assist him. The dazzling results included the first commercially successful light bulb for which, Morris reminds readers, he invented the entire system: dynamo, wires, transformers, connections, and switches. Critics proclaim that Edison’s innovations (motion pictures, fluoroscope, rechargeable batteries, mimeograph, etc.) were merely improvements on others’ work, but this is mostly a matter of sour grapes. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was a clunky, short-range device until it added Edison’s carbon microphone. And his phonograph flabbergasted everyone. Humans had been making images long before Daguerre, but no one had ever reproduced sound. Morris rivetingly describes the personalities, business details, and practical uses of Edison’s inventions as well as the massive technical details of years of research and trial and error for both his triumphs and his failures. For no obvious reason, the author writes in reverse chronological order, beginning in 1920, with each of the seven following chapters backtracking a decade. It may not satisfy all readers, but it works.

Not only the definitive life, but a tour de force by a master.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9311-0

Page Count: 800

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

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

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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

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