Credit Dunn with a valuable text that offers something for everyone—patients, practitioners, medical students, historians...



The heart was a black box up until a century ago, writes Dunn (Ecology and Evolution/North Carolina State Univ.; The Wild Life on Our Bodies, 2011, etc.). His well-researched text chronicles how the box was opened.

The author opens with an account of how, even with today’s impressive technology and medicine, his mother nearly died from too high a dosage of digitalis, a drug used to slow a rapid heartbeat. The author then recounts an incident in 1893 in which an African-American doctor in Chicago saved the life of a victim of a stab wound to the heart by cutting into the wound and sewing a tear in the pericardium. Then it’s on to ancient history, with nods to da Vinci, Harvey and some others as exceptions to the view of the heart as sacrosanct and inviolable. The modern era began with the derring-do of the titular doctor, Werner Forssmann, who in 1929 inserted a catheter into an arm vein, threaded it to the heart and had it X-rayed, performing the first angiogram. In the 1930s, there were significant improvements in angiography, and succeeding decades saw the advent of heart-lung machines, new diets, drugs and devices (pacemakers, stents), and heart transplants. Dunn profiles the principals, with particular opprobrium for Christiaan Barnard, the South African surgeon ruthless in his zeal to be first to perform a human-to-human heart transplant. As for treatments today, Dunn cites studies showing that patients fare better with medication and diet to treat narrowed arteries, as compared with stents, but the latter are a huge moneymaker for hospitals. Finally, speaking as an evolutionary biologist, the author urges scientists to study the heart in evolution, pointing to striking findings that humans are alone among primates in our suffering from atherosclerosis. It’s complicated, he writes, but we might reap huge benefits in prevention rather than just focusing on repairs.

Credit Dunn with a valuable text that offers something for everyone—patients, practitioners, medical students, historians and policymakers.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0316225793

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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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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