In this spirited and engaging book, science writer Kunzig, an editor at Discover magazine, voyages among oceanographers, alive and departed, from dockside to textbook, and reports back on our current understanding, and often dubious treatment, of the world’s oceans. Seventy percent of our world is hidden by the oceans’ surface. The often great depths precluded serious study until recently, when sonar and probes and submersibles started to take its measure. Far from the barren wastes it was thought to comprise, Kunzig makes clear, the ocean is an unfathomably rich place, even in the cold, lightless crushing deep, where the diversity of species rivals that of a tropical rainforest. Kunzig starts by bringing readers up to speed on oceanographic thinking. For instance: no, the oceans were not formed by volcanoes, but rather by a torrent of planetoids that pelted Earth and kicked up blankets of steam. He goes on to profile scientists and their seminal work, from Henry Cavendish, the egghead archetype who discovered the composition of water, to the toilers in the oceanic trenches at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He describes the wild denizens of the deep sea (porcelain-white crabs, the utterly bizarre sea cucumber), abyssal storms, the sea floor’s endless quadrille. He delivers a Cook’s tour of seawater in global circulation, forgives the lax morals of water molecules as they change partners billions of times a second. And Kunzig strikes a number of cautionary notes. Poised as humans are to exploit the ocean to its max, it would be wise to remember our boundless ignorance as to its workings. We have nearly fished cod to extinction, a fish once so plentiful that Vikings could practically use them as cobblestones from the Faroes to Newfoundland. A nimble, thorough introduction to the ocean in all its vast, untamable, and fearsome attraction. Kunzig’s flair should stir readers’ awe and allow them to share in his protective urge.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-393-04562-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


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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