A bright, informative resource for readers seeking to understand science through the eyes of the men and women who shaped...



The prolific author of the Story of the World series explores the history of science through the prism of key scientific texts.

Bauer (Writing and American Literature/Coll. of William and Mary; The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, 2003, etc.) explains that her intention is to trace “the development of great science writing—the essays and books that have most directly affected and changed the course of scientific investigation.” The author divides the book in five parts, and she provides a historical context for the texts she recommends and explains the reasons for her choices. Part I, “The Beginnings,” looks at the seminal writings on medicine by Hippocrates, as well as Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, and Copernicus, who wrote his groundbreaking Commentariolus in 1514. Bauer compares different translations of the original text and explains their respective merits. In the second part, “The Birth of the Method,” the author introduces Newtonian physics, and parts III (“Reading the Earth”) and IV (“Reading Life”) deal with geology and biology, from earth science to Darwin's theory of natural selection and Crick and Watson's groundbreaking discovery of the structure of DNA. Bauer’s recommendations include Watson's The Double Helix and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. In the final section, “Reading the Cosmos,” the author begins with Einstein's theory of relativity and covers works on quantum theory, cosmology, and chaos theory. In addition to guiding inquisitive readers to the original texts that record landmark discoveries, Bauer also seeks to explain “the why” of scientific discovery. The scope of the book makes it susceptible to a certain amount of superficiality—e.g., Bauer's discussion of determinism in the context of chaos theory—but that does not detract from its value.

A bright, informative resource for readers seeking to understand science through the eyes of the men and women who shaped its history.

Pub Date: May 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-24326-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2015

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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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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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