Uneven, but pleasurable overall for the stimulation of being in the presence of a nimble mind.

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FACING UP

SCIENCE AND ITS CULTURAL ADVERSARIES

In 23 previously published articles and miscellaneous speeches, which span 15 years, the Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist takes up arms against a sea of post-modernists, religionists, mystics, and even some liberal critics of modern science.

Weinberg’s congressional testimony during the lost battle to build the Superconducting Super Collider, the technology for which he argued might have moved physics beyond the “standard model” of quantum field theory toward a unified theory including gravity, touches on an oft-repeated theme. He believes that there is order in the universe, that physics has been successfully probing this as an external reality for at least 400 years, and that we are getting closer to the truth. Enter now the adversaries, chiefly cultural relativists, deconstructionists, and some philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science. Weinberg is particularly incisive in taking on the relativists, who believe that science is nothing but the elitist, authoritarian, and sexist reflection of a particular cultural milieu. On the contrary, he points out, physicists the world over speak the same language, adhere to the same precepts and paradigms. To skewer the deconstructionists, Weinberg makes good use of physicist Alan Sokal’s hoax article in the journal Social Text, noting that while Sokal perpetrated various howlers from his own field, he did not make up the incomprehensible quotes from such French intellectuals as Derrida and Lacan. In the final essays dealing with religion and utopias Weinberg is predictably more than skeptical; he goes so far as to say that “for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” Weinberg admits that as often as not scientists and their adversaries talk past each other, so do not expect reconciliation here. However, interspersed with the arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals of adversaries are two quieter gems: a tour-de-force summary of 20th-century physics’ accomplishments and a brief description of the moment of inspiration for his development of the theory unifying the weak and electromagnetic force.

Uneven, but pleasurable overall for the stimulation of being in the presence of a nimble mind.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-674-00647-X

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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