VISIONS OF TECHNOLOGY

An anthology of short takes on the century’s progress in invention/technology, selected and presented chronologically by a prize-winning writer who himself has contributed to the history of technology (e.g., Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, 1995). The result is a mixed bag, leaving the reader frustrated (why this and not that) and querulous (where are we headed? what is the point?). Some selections celebrate moments of discovery; others discourse on the meaning and implications of an innovation, making value judgments. But, as he says at the outset, “The deep truth about the debate that fills this book is that it’s a debate among the orthodox. . . . No one, not even the Unabomber, has proposed a return to a Hobbesian garden of the primates.” So science and technology (the distinction blurs) emerge as the inevitable fallout of our enlarged brains. As for the limits, turn of the century writers like Henry Adams voiced fear of the dynamo, Samuel Gompers worried that the new industrial efficiencies were “producing wealth but grinding man”—themes that recur as the century develops. In due course, Rhodes gives us Oppenheimer confessing that scientists “have known sin,” and Newton Minow lamenting TV’s “vast wasteland.” There are also the daring visions and realities of the Pill, the transistor, the laser, and the artificial intelligence pursuits of Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky. In short, the 20th century is a technological dream—or nightmare, depending on your point of view. A serious omission is medical advances (because Rhodes says they are so well attended). Beginning with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, molecular biology and its applications have become the technological movers and shakers in the late 20th century—and of the century to come. In the end, Rhodes has given us a collection of trees (with some species missing). Pity, because with a little more effort and more than cursory commentary he could have created pathways leading to a forest of ideas.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-83903-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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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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