A skillful account of the central element in our lives.



An appealing popular-science account of carbon, the “giver of life.”

According to this lively, expert overview, although carbon is only the fourth most abundant element in the universe—and second in the human body—it is the key to everything. Hazen (The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet, 2012), executive director of the Deep Carbon Observatory at George Mason University, emphasizes that “carbon, by itself, and in chemical combinations with other atoms, provides unmatched cosmic novelty and unparalleled potential for cosmic evolution….As the basis for all biomolecules, no other element contributes so centrally to the well-being and sustainability of life on Earth, including our human species.” The author divides the book into a symphony of four movements, each entitled with a classical element: earth, air, fire, and water. “Earth” begins with the universe itself. Carbon, essentially absent after the Big Bang, first appeared in the cores of massive stars, spreading across the universe when those stars died and exploded in supernovae. Our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago from dust and rocks in a protoplanetary disc rotating around the young sun. Extremely hot at first, as it cooled, heavy elements (mostly iron) sank, taking most of the carbon, but plenty remained in the “Air” as carbon dioxide engaged in the essential carbon cycle, shifting between atmosphere and ocean, plunging deep into the Earth and then emerging through volcanoes. Readers expecting to learn how massive amounts of extra carbon dioxide from the human burning of hydrocarbons are destabilizing the cycle will not be disappointed. In “Fire,” Hazen, a smooth stylist, reminds us that carbon remains our major source of energy but also the source of almost everything we use, from shampoo to the soles of our shoes. “Water” is essential for life, at least on Earth. Scientists disagree on how life began, but few doubt that only carbon, with its supreme ability to link with other elements, makes it all possible.

A skillful account of the central element in our lives.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-60943-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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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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