Well researched, well paced and accessible.



A collection of science essays first published in the New Yorker, here brought up to date and lightly threaded together.

Preston (The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, 2007, etc.) opens with an introduction, “Adventures in Nonfiction Writing,” that returns to the frightening world of viruses explored in The Hot Zone (1994), to demonstrate how he researches and shapes his work, sometimes under extraordinary circumstances. At one point, he shares his feelings of horror when the zipper on his biohazard suit breaks while he is inside Biosafety Level 4 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He offers a bloody, stomach-churning account of what a virus can do to the human body in “The Search for Ebola,” centered on Kikwit General Hospital in the Congo. Mortality is again the focus in “A Death in the Forest,” but this time the agent is a tiny brown parasitic insect, and its victim is the eastern hemlock, once found in abundance in temperate rain forests in the southern Appalachians. This story takes Preston valiantly bushwhacking through the Cataloochee Valley and climbing 160-foot trees with an arborist to witness and record the devastation. “The Human Kabbalah,” which focuses on Craig Venter and the business and technology behind the deciphering of the human genome, is loosely linked to “The Self-Cannibals,” which tackles a genetic disorder that causes those who have it to attack themselves brutally. While the tone of the former is at times acerbic, the latter piece includes a moving portrait of two sufferers the author befriended. “The Mountains of Pi” sympathetically profiles two eccentric mathematicians who designed and built a supercomputer from mail-order parts in a Manhattan apartment to calculate pi to a world-record-setting number of digits: 2,260,321,336. They return in “The Lost Unicorn,” which recounts how their expertise enabled them to capture digital images of large medieval tapestries for The Cloisters museum.

Well researched, well paced and accessible.

Pub Date: June 3, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6490-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2008

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A quirky wonder of a book.



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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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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