High-quality science writing: an illuminating picture of investigators at work and a lucid explication of their findings.



Engrossing review of the latest advances in the science of memory and brain disease.

During the 1990s, Alzheimer’s replaced AIDS as an American mass phobia, writes veteran science journalist Halpern (The Book of Hard Things, 2003, etc.). Polls place Alzheimer’s second after cancer as the nation’s most feared disease, and it’s first among those older than 55. But, like thinning hair and wrinkles, memory problems occur during normal aging, she informs us. This is cold comfort to anyone who loses her keys or forgets to pay the phone bill, lapses that stimulated the middle-aged author to “get her head examined” and quiz the scientists doing the examining. Halpern intermixes her own experiences with interviews. Her subjects, most of them university faculty, do a good job explaining how we remember, what can go wrong and what they are doing about it. Heredity plays a role, but despite headlines regularly announcing the discovery of the Alzheimer’s gene, it’s unlikely that a single genetic trigger exists; instead, scientists have found plenty of genes that increase the risk. Detecting early memory loss has become a minor industry that often involves high-tech scans and MRIs, even though paper-and-pen tests work as well. (Halpern did both.) The author investigates research to boost memory and turns up one method that works: regular physical exercise. Folk wisdom to the contrary, doing crossword puzzles or math problems doesn’t help. Many drugs increase memory in animals; given to humans, their success rate remains steady at zero. There is as yet no “cure,” but Halpern stresses that breakthroughs occur much faster after scientists understand a disease, and Alzheimer’s is no longer the baffling puzzle it once was. Researchers with new ideas and high-tech equipment are turning up specific anatomical, molecular and genetic abnormalities that govern memory and its loss.

High-quality science writing: an illuminating picture of investigators at work and a lucid explication of their findings.

Pub Date: May 6, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-307-40674-3

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harmony

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and...


A dense, absorbing investigation into the medical community's exploitation of a dying woman and her family's struggle to salvage truth and dignity decades later.

In a well-paced, vibrant narrative, Popular Science contributor and Culture Dish blogger Skloot (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis) demonstrates that for every human cell put under a microscope, a complex life story is inexorably attached, to which doctors, researchers and laboratories have often been woefully insensitive and unaccountable. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five, was diagnosed with what proved to be a fatal form of cervical cancer. At Johns Hopkins, the doctors harvested cells from her cervix without her permission and distributed them to labs around the globe, where they were multiplied and used for a diverse array of treatments. Known as HeLa cells, they became one of the world's most ubiquitous sources for medical research of everything from hormones, steroids and vitamins to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, even the polio vaccine—all without the knowledge, must less consent, of the Lacks family. Skloot spent a decade interviewing every relative of Lacks she could find, excavating difficult memories and long-simmering outrage that had lay dormant since their loved one's sorrowful demise. Equal parts intimate biography and brutal clinical reportage, Skloot's graceful narrative adeptly navigates the wrenching Lack family recollections and the sobering, overarching realities of poverty and pre–civil-rights racism. The author's style is matched by a methodical scientific rigor and manifest expertise in the field.

Skloot's meticulous, riveting account strikes a humanistic balance between sociological history, venerable portraiture and Petri dish politics.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-4000-5217-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2010

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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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