BOTTLED LIGHTNING

SUPERBATTERIES, ELECTRIC CARS, AND THE NEW LITHIUM ECONOMY

The future is all around us, goes the techie adage; it’s just not evenly distributed. And so it is with a certain battery, writes Popular Science features editor Fletcher, that could change the world.

What was it those guys in Star Trek were always hunting for? Ah, yes: dilithium, the stuff with which to keep their starship tanked up. Here on Earth we have lithium, with veins of the mineral scattered across the deserts of Bolivia and Chile. The author opens with an account of a “concept car” from General Motors, the Chevrolet Volt, revealed just a few years back with the idea that “electrification of the automobile had finally arrived thanks to a critical enabling technology: the lithium-ion battery.” The problem, as Fletcher notes, was that the batteries were there theoretically, “within sight yet not within hand”—that is, lithium batteries were in use, to be sure, in things such as cell phones and cameras, but just hadn’t quite scaled up to car size. Was GM just trying to project a green image? Perhaps. But, Fletcher argues, when the technology matches up with reality, big changes could await us in the form of a comparatively inexpensive, comparatively abundant and certainly comparatively clean fuel source. The author provides an entertaining, surprisingly eventful history of human efforts to harness energy in the form of battery power since the days of Alessandro Volta, focusing closely on latter-day genius and evangelist John Goodenough, who worked on lithium oxides beginning in the 1950s but whose breakthrough invention went begging for a license—“not for any good reason,” notes Fletcher, except that it was unorthodox. Fast-forward 50 years, and the unorthodox is the commonplace. Who will benefit, though? That’s a matter that remains to be settled once a variety of international scientists get around to conjuring up lithium-based fuel out of—yes, thin air. A fine, readable work of popular science, sometimes verging on science fiction.

 

Pub Date: May 18, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8090-3053-8

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2011

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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