An intriguing though surface-level look at some of the things that make us human—and more.

SUPERHUMAN

LIFE AT THE EXTREMES OF OUR CAPACITY

Calculating pi out to 100,000 digits, running like Usain Bolt, speaking 65 languages: Biologist and New Scientist managing editor Hooper delves into the minds of people of extraordinary, sometimes extravagant, capabilities.

Not everyone has superpowers, writes the author, “but we do have a greater capacity than we realize. We have hidden depths.” We can train ourselves to do and think better, and though the nature-vs.-nurture debate still rages, there’s plenty of evidence in this book to suggest that efforts at self-improvement can pay off in rewards of a sometimes-surprising kind. Consider Emil Krebs, a German diplomat who really did master 65 languages, acquiring a good working knowledge of the proverbially difficult Armenian language in just two weeks. As Hooper notes, when Krebs' brain was dissected, his family having helpfully provided his body to science after his death, it was found that the very architecture of his Broca’s area was different from that of ordinary humans. “So his brain was different—as well it might be. He was different,” writes Hooper, with less explanatory power than one might wish. Indeed, the author seldom goes deep, preferring to skim across a broad field that takes in such matters as sleep and the “monophasic tyranny” that pushes us to conceive of the eight-hour block as the ideal; the curiosity that groups such as the Amish and Cretan mountaineers eat animal fat by the tray and aren’t felled by heart attacks like the rest of the world; and IQ, which is an admittedly imperfect instrument for measuring all aspects of intelligence but at least is an instrument—"if we refuse to reduce complex things to numbers, we can’t investigate them scientifically.” A little less flitting from subject to subject would have made this a neater study, though to cover as much ground in depth would take a book 10 times as long.

An intriguing though surface-level look at some of the things that make us human—and more.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6871-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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LAB GIRL

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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