A useful primer on a force that still inspires mystery.

THE TROUBLE WITH GRAVITY

SOLVING THE MYSTERY BENEATH OUR FEET

According to this fine popular primer, nobody knows what gravity is, but few readers will feel that their time was wasted.

No one thought about gravity before Aristotle, writes science writer Panek (The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, 2011), but all ancient cultures knew that some things were “up” (the heavens, the gods), and earthly matter was “down.” Everything on Earth fell down, but the heavens stayed up, and few thinkers wondered why. “Reasoning,” writes the author, “…was what Aristotle would introduce into the conversation: methodology, not mythology.” However, he came to the wrong conclusion, maintaining that objects fell because they are drawn toward the center of the universe, which sat at the center of the Earth. Heavenly objects, being perfect, were exempt. Newton’s concept of universal attractive force and the inverse square law were not original, but his outstanding mathematics, which predicted movements of bodies anywhere in the universe, made him a superstar in Britain. Natural philosophers of other nations pointed out that a force that acted magically across empty space was clearly nonsense. Because Newton’s math worked so well, they came around, but plenty of thoughtful scientists remained unhappy. Panek paraphrases physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach: “the theory of gravitation had disguised its philosophical shortcomings by proving its reliability and usefulness. But the philosophical shortcomings remained. They’d just become respectable.” Einstein solved the problem in 1915 by more dazzling mathematics demonstrating that matter warps nearby space-time. Bodies moving through this distorted space seem to change direction, giving the appearance of a force acting on them. Many bizarre consequences—black holes, gravitational lenses, the slowing of time—follow naturally. Philosophically inclined readers may complain that scientists still don’t know what gravity is, but the remainder will enjoy Panek’s expert description of the spectacular things that gravity does.

A useful primer on a force that still inspires mystery.

Pub Date: July 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-544-52674-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

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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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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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