A brilliantly lucid exposition of profound philosophical and scientific issues in a language accessible to lay readers.

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THE BIG PICTURE

ON THE ORIGINS OF LIFE, MEANING, AND THE UNIVERSE ITSELF

“From the perspective of a vast, seemingly indifferent cosmos,” do our lives really matter?

As might be expected, Carroll’s (Theoretical Physics/Caltech; The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World, 2012, etc.) answer is affirmative but not simple. “We are not the reason for the existence of the universe,” he writes, “but our ability for self-awareness and reflection make us special within it.” Furthermore, “understanding how the world works, and what constraints that puts on who we are, is an important part of understanding how we fit into the big picture.” In this fascinating book, Carroll explores “how and why, in the context of mindless evolution from the Big Bang to the present, the laws of physics brought about complex, adaptive, intelligent, responsive, evolving, caring creatures like you and me.” To effectively navigate these complicated matters, he turns to an area of his own research regarding how the emergence of increasing complexity in the evolving universe relates to increasing entropy, the second law of thermodynamics. Although intuitively, we associate entropy with disorganization and increased randomness, it plays a crucial role in the development of complex structures. For example, it is randomness and apparent disorganization—the role of chance variation and mutations—that are central to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. At each successive level of complexity—from stars and planets to life and conscious beings—different levels of descriptive language are necessary. This introduces a poetic aspect into the language used by scientists in their attempts to understand our place in the universe. The author affirms his conviction that “nothing we…know about consciousness should lead us to doubt the ordinary, naturalistic conception of the world,” including the provisional nature of scientific theory. Carroll is the perfect guide on this wondrous journey of discovery.

A brilliantly lucid exposition of profound philosophical and scientific issues in a language accessible to lay readers.

Pub Date: May 10, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-525-95482-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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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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