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

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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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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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