A physics-for-poets guide that’s more exuberant than enlightening.

THE JAZZ OF PHYSICS

THE SECRET LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE UNIVERSE

Look to jazz greats like John Coltrane for insights into subatomic particles and the history of the cosmos.

In this loosely autobiographical meditation, Alexander (Physics/Brown Univ.) explores resonances between music and physics in Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres,” Albert Einstein’s love of music, Coltrane’s love of Einstein, and his own ideas as a theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist. It’s a vast, cosmic theme that includes quantum mechanics, superstring theory, the Big Bang, the evolution of galaxies, and the process of scientific theorizing itself. Alexander mines music for analogies to physical reality and credits jam sessions as a method of opening his mind to scientific insights. The comparison between music and physics rests on the fact that sound is a wave with similarities to the wave phenomena that underlie modern physics. That observation sometimes yields illuminating results—e.g., the notion that the early universe contained tiny density fluctuations that looked like 300,000-light-year-long sound waves and eventually clumped into stars and galaxies. Unfortunately, Alexander rarely finds a satisfying middle ground between facile metaphor—“in jazz combos, the ‘gravitational’ pull comes from the bass and drums”—and obscure arcana. Most of the discussions (and the accompanying diagrams and math equations) are rapturous but murky. Many are too difficult and sketchily explained for laypeople to grasp, whether they are about physics—“D-branes were the objects that carried the Ramond-Ramond charge the same way a point particle (0-brane) carries electric charge”—music theory (“in the key of C, the V is a G-dominant chord and its mirror image/tritone for G is D-flat dominant”), or the effusions of jazzman Sonny Rollins (“I don’t want to play the music; I want the music to play me”). Alexander’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, but that won’t help readers fully understand it.

A physics-for-poets guide that’s more exuberant than enlightening.

Pub Date: April 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-03499-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 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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