Plodding early on, but Bown effectively revisits the geopolitical intrigues that accrued around a now forgotten commodity.



How the chemistry of nitrogen-based compounds, crucial to the making of both explosives and fertilizer, has altered the course of history.

Canadian writer Bown (Scurvy, 2004) explores some of history’s dustiest galleries to marshal personalities and events that, having changed the world, have been largely forgotten. This somewhat tortuous but logically connected journey begins with gunpowder, a plaything for the Chinese perhaps over a millennium ago, but seriously pursued as a weapon of mass destruction in Europe by the 13th century. Thus begins the frantic quest for saltpeter (potassium nitrate, also known as niter), an essential gunpowder component, along with sulfur and charcoal; although it naturally occurs when human or animal wastes saturate—and thus fertilize—the soil, the European powers developed such an appetite for saltpeter that large tracts in tropical colonies like India were dedicated to its cultivation and production. The author ventures through the ebb and flow of nitrate commerce as the vast, (literally) stinking “guano island” deposits off the Chilean coast become, essentially, the Saudi Arabia of a 19th century world in need of both nitrogen-based fertilizers and yet more gunpowder. Meanwhile, Alfred Nobel (1833–96) formulated nitroglycerine, first called “blasting oil,” and in 1866, following some harrowing disasters, refined it into more stable dynamite that became a prime enabler for the modern heavy construction and mining industries. On the eve of World War I, when depletion of the world’s nitrates loomed as an impending disaster (paralleling modern petroleum dependence), the German chemist Fritz Haber invented a process for fixation of nitrogen from the air, thus cheaply synthesizing nitrates and, Bown suggests, saving civilization from starvation. Since Haber also worked on deployment of chlorine gas as a weapon first used by the Germans in France, his awarding of the Nobel Prize in 1918 remains highly controversial.

Plodding early on, but Bown effectively revisits the geopolitical intrigues that accrued around a now forgotten commodity.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-312-32913-X

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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A quirky wonder of a book.



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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