A colorful, detailed history of scientific passions and the hunger for knowledge.



The story of a 19th-century scientific society that exerted wide-ranging influence throughout Britain and beyond.

In 1819, naturalists Adam Sedgwick, newly appointed professor of geology at Cambridge, and his friend John Stevens Henslow, a recent graduate, proposed to establish a scientific society for Cambridge, a place where “gentlemen of science” could share their research. As Gibson (History and Philosophy of Science/Univ. of Cambridge; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?: How Eighteenth-Century Science Disrupted the Natural Order, 2015) reveals in a vivid, deeply researched intellectual history, the Cambridge Philosophical Society changed both the university and the larger scientific community. At the time the society was founded, Cambridge “was an intellectually cautious place” devoted to teaching the classics, the Bible, and the mathematics of Isaac Newton. Yet science was burgeoning, and the society was one among many that arose across Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. Some were specialized (focused, for example, on astronomy or mineralogy), others intended as gatherings for the scientific elite. The society was unique because of its connection to the university, which both supported its efforts and allowed for its reach beyond the confines of its meeting rooms. Since its original members were members of the university, their own research and the ideas they gleaned at forums—letters from Charles Darwin from his trip on the Beagle, for example—made their ways into undergraduate teaching. Its two enthusiastic founders saw the society as “a place where things got done: if Cambridge lacked a decent scientific library, they would assemble one; if the town didn’t have a natural history museum, they would create one; if the press failed to produce a natural philosophical journal, they would write one themselves.” All these resources shaped Cambridge curriculum, which by the 1850s allowed students to be examined for a degree in the Natural Sciences. Over the years, students increasingly took up that option, and the university attracted major scientists—Niels Bohr, J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, among others—from all over the world.

A colorful, detailed history of scientific passions and the hunger for knowledge.

Pub Date: May 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-19-883337-6

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 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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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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