A short, sweet, and scientifically solid view of life.

A SERIES OF FORTUNATE EVENTS

CHANCE AND THE MAKING OF THE PLANET, LIFE, AND YOU

The award-winning science writer offers evidence that pure chance governs life.

“Look at…all the beauty, complexity, and variety of life,” writes Carroll. “We live in a world of mistakes, governed by chance.” Near the beginning, the author looks at the asteroid that struck Earth 66 million years ago, throwing up so much debris that it blocked the sun, cooling the planet for decades and exterminating most species, including the dinosaurs. Within a few hundred thousand years, the survivors, including mammals, flourished and evolved into many families, including primates and then humans. Such a collision is extremely rare, but humans wouldn’t exist without it. Carroll then offers an expert summary of evolution, a process heavily influenced by geological processes and climate changes that have fluctuated wildly over the past 1 million years, during which our species appeared and grew its large brain. Darwin explained evolution as a series of random variations in offspring that persist if they increase an organism’s reproductive fitness and, over time, spread throughout the species. His work teems with evidence, but scientists found much to quarrel with. Nearly a century passed before discoveries in genetics (the dazzling if clunky mechanism through which variations are passed on) and details of DNA (the engine of genetic changes, itself an ad hoc collection of chemicals) convinced the scientific community. Readers will learn numerous fascinating tales, such as a failed effort to produce a human-chimpanzee hybrid (a “humanzee”), how the ancestors of wooly mammoths from tropical Africa learned to live in the Arctic, and how the AIDS virus jumped from chimps to humans. An amusing coda featuring an invented conversation between dead geniuses and living comedians reinforces the necessity of science even when millions eschew it in favor of a belief that things happen for a reason. Ricky Gervais: “[Science] doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray.”

A short, sweet, and scientifically solid view of life.

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-691-20175-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: June 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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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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Gates offers a persuasive, 30,000-foot view of a global problem that, he insists, can be prevented given will and money.

HOW TO PREVENT THE NEXT PANDEMIC

The tech mogul recounts the health care–related dimensions of his foundation in what amounts to a long policy paper.

“Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” Thus states the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, a Gates adviser, who hits on a critically important point: Disease is a fact of nature, but a pandemic is a political creation of a kind. Therefore, there are political as well as medical solutions that can enlist governments as well as scientists to contain outbreaks and make sure they don’t explode into global disasters. One critical element, Gates writes, is to alleviate the gap between high- and low-income countries, the latter of which suffer disproportionately from outbreaks. Another is to convince governments to ramp up production of vaccines that are “universal”—i.e., applicable to an existing range of disease agents, especially respiratory pathogens such as coronaviruses and flus—to prepare the world’s populations for the inevitable. “Doing the right thing early pays huge dividends later,” writes Gates. Even though doing the right thing is often expensive, the author urges that it’s a wise investment and one that has never been attempted—e.g., developing a “global corps” of scientists and aid workers “whose job is to wake up every day thinking about diseases that could kill huge numbers of people.” To those who object that such things are easier said than done, Gates counters that the development of the current range of Covid vaccines was improbably fast, taking a third of the time that would normally have been required. At the same time, the author examines some of the social changes that came about through the pandemic, including the “new normal” of distance working and learning—both of which, he urges, stand to be improved but need not be abandoned.

Gates offers a persuasive, 30,000-foot view of a global problem that, he insists, can be prevented given will and money.

Pub Date: May 3, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-53448-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2022

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