A keen, colorful contribution to popular science.



Science writer and novelist Ings (The Weight of Numbers, 2006, etc.) compresses an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the evolution, makeup and function of the eye into an energetic, accessible volume.

He fuses history, science and personal anecdote to explain vision as it belongs to “a commonwealth of the senses,” while also relating the generations of brilliant researchers (Kepler, Brahe, Platter, da Vinci, al-Kindi) whose investigations cohere into the comprehensive understanding of sight and vision that we possess today. Exuding curiosity and awe, Ings delves into the wonders of trilobites and their compelling calcite lenses; the children of the Burmese Moken, whose pupils have evolved to shrink unimaginably small in order to increase acuity underwater; the connection among “night blindness,” malnutrition, the retinal pigment rhodopsin and Vitamin A; the curious and revelatory Ophthalmosaurus fossil, whose vertebrate eyes contained bone. Alongside this technical history, Ings examines the philosophical implications of sight, exploring color as “a construction of mind” in addition to the reactions of rods and cones. The eye plays an important role in behavioral development, providing universal cues and expressions that build social skills starting in infancy. An instinct as simple as following another person’s line of sight is an integral part of communication; only when sight is taken away do these basic facets of interaction reveal themselves as fundamental. The author concludes with a chapter discussing the possibilities of electronic sight, including ultrasound spectacles that convey information directly to electrodes positioned on the surface of the visual cortex, and prosthetic retinal implants that would enable non-damaged ganglion cells to bypass damaged photoreceptors and recapture light. At MIT, Rodney Brooks’s “embodied” artificial intelligence could produce miniaturized robots whose vision—and perhaps cognition—mirror or exceed our own. These and other innovations are not science fiction, but modern-day accomplishments ushering in what Ings dubs “the Perception Revolution,” which could very well redefine the way we see the world.

A keen, colorful contribution to popular science.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-393-06719-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2008

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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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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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


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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