Great fun for general readers curious about our world and an especially appropriate gift for a young person considering a...

CAESAR'S LAST BREATH

DECODING THE SECRETS OF THE AIR AROUND US

A witty book that turns the science of the stuff we breathe into a delightful romp through history.

Kean (The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, 2014, etc.), an award-winning science writer whose previous books may have sounded off the wall but tackled serious subjects, has done it again, using his free-wheeling style to translate hard scientific facts into lively stories. He divides the narrative into three sections, the first of which examines the origins of the air on our planet. Here, we learn about the contribution of volcanic eruptions, including a diverting piece on one unfortunately stubborn resident of Mount Saint Helens, the eruption of which served as “the greatest geology lesson in American history.” In the second section, Kean takes up the various components of air, starting with the major one, nitrogen, and concluding with the much rarer helium and the noble gases. Here, each chapter explores how human beings have exploited the different gases, which gives the author the opportunity to tell more entertaining stories, including ones about anesthesia and ballooning. In the third section, Kean takes a look at recent changes in the composition of our air and at the significance of the atmospheres of other planets. Of special interest, however, are the interspersed sections called “Interludes,” in which the author tells related human interest anecdotes—e.g., an exploding lake in Cambodia, a failed bank robbery in Germany, spontaneous combustion of humans, and the special talents of Le Pétomane, a highly paid “fartiste” at the Moulin Rouge. Kean cannot resist sharing other gems he uncovered in his research, and readers will appreciate them. For these, see the back-of-the-book section, “Notes and Miscellanea.” Some are priceless.

Great fun for general readers curious about our world and an especially appropriate gift for a young person considering a career in the sciences.

Pub Date: July 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-316-38164-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: April 30, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2017

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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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