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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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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