by Susannah Gibson ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 1, 2019
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
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online: Feb. 27, 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
Page Count: 224
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020
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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...
Awards & Accolades
Best Books Of 2016
New York Times Bestseller
Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.
These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.
Pub Date: March 1, 2016
Page Count: 96
Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015
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