Not for the technophobic or number-averse, but for the rest of the audience, an often fascinating look at the quantification...


Crunch the numbers, change the world: a big book, backed by big business (EMC, Cisco and FedEx, which did not have editorial input), on the big ocean of information that humans are generating, for better or worse.

Smolan (of Day in the Life series fame) and Erwitt (co-authors: America at Home, 2008, etc.) open with an aptly numerate observation from Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google: From the dawn of time until 2003, humans spun out 5 exabytes (that is, 5 quintillion bytes) of data, an amount we now generate every two days. We take in much of that data unwittingly via the billboards and ads and sound bites and such that fill our eyes and ears. Computers take it in via the “trail of digital exhaust” that we leave behind: GPS positions, phone calls, texts, web histories and so forth. Smolan and Erwitt tell the stories of some of this data with, for instance, a medical/genetic profile of a young Afghani-American woman whose DNA indicates such probabilities as “less than 2 percent chance of developing Parkinson’s disease”; a sidebar by ubiquitous nerd A.J. Jacobs, an adherent of the self-tracked (as opposed, one might think, to the self-examined) life; and, of course, the inhuman side of the question in the matter of drones, a question that has lately been exercising Rand Paul—drones being controlled by humans, after all, whence their inclusion here. Smolan and Erwitt don’t seem to have a specific political program, but they tend to the data-is-good side of the argument, or, perhaps better, the data-is-good-if-put-to-good-uses school. Those good uses are plenty, from maximizing planting seasons and human fertility cycles to predicting bad weather to figuring the makings of the universe. Still, one wants to see the human face of, say, a sneering Dick Cheney targeting some opponent—for, as the authors conclude, “Data is the new oil.”

Not for the technophobic or number-averse, but for the rest of the audience, an often fascinating look at the quantification of us all.

Pub Date: Nov. 20, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-4549-0827-2

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Against All Odds Productions

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

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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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