Scientific history that looks beyond the facts and figures to their influence on everyday life.

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WORLD IN THE BALANCE

THE HISTORIC QUEST FOR A UNIVERSAL SYSTEM OF MEASUREMENT

A look at how weights and measures evolved over the ages, and their importance as a social bond.

Physics World columnist Crease (Philosophy/Stony Brook Univ.; The Great Equations, 2009, etc.) starts with the beginning of commerce. From early times, merchants and their customers needed a set of standards that would assure both that they were getting a fair deal. Different societies arrived at different methods of attaining this goal. In China, each new dynasty needed to prove its legitimacy by “improving” its predecessors’ standards for weight, length and music. In West Africa, the use of small figurines to measure gold became the keystone of society. But as trade became more international, the great trading nations began to impose their standards on their partners. Britain and France were in many ways the leaders, the former with the Imperial system, the latter, after the Revolution, with the metric system. This battle for dominance makes up much of the narrative. The meter was a philosophical construct, based in theory on the size of the Earth—specifically, on the meridian of longitude passing through Paris. The French government sent out expeditions to measure the meridian and arrived after some trouble at a standard meter. Advocates of the new system immediately began to proselytize for it, sending copies of the standard to other nations including the United States, where the “scientific” measure had a strong advocate in Thomas Jefferson. Crease also emphasizes how human nature played a part, both in the success of the new system and in the resistance to it. Especially in America, religious conservatives railed against its adoption as early as the 1860s. Meanwhile, American scientists were among those who strove to improve its accuracy. Crease provides a solid explanation of how something so arbitrary can be made truly “universal.”

Scientific history that looks beyond the facts and figures to their influence on everyday life.

Pub Date: Oct. 24, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-07298-3

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2011

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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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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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