Once the exclusive province of science fiction, space flight is now the stuff of sober (though hardly dull) history. Heppenheimer (The Coming Quake, 1988, etc.) begins his survey with Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, and Goddard, the early-20th-century pioneers of rocketry. Their work came to fruition in the German V-2 missile, the foundation on which both the Soviets and Americans built their space programs after WW II. The military applications of rocketry were the primary attractions to both countries, especially the Soviets, who after the war found themselves playing catch-up with the US. Stalin made it a national priority to create nuclear weapons and to find a way to deliver them to targets in America. It was his home-grown rocket scientists, led by Sergei Korolov, who made the breakthrough, symbolized by the launch of Sputnik I in 1957. That event pushed the space race into high gear- -leading to the Apollo program and everything that has followed. Heppenheimer shines the light as much on the backstage movers and shakers as on the astronauts themselves, a logical choice given his contention that the real gains of the space program have been achieved by robot probes and other uncrewed vehicles, which are now so reliable and commonplace that the public hardly notices their launches. Drawing on newly released material from Soviet archives, the book gives the most complete look to date at the problems and accomplishments of the Russian space effort. While Americans were first on the moon, the Soviets have concentrated on orbiting space stations, learning more about the long-term effects of weightlessness on the human body. Heppenheimer ends with a forecast of our near future in space, including more manned flights to the moon. Well-written, full of fascinating character studies and incidents, this is a solid, useful reference on what may be the defining accomplishment of our era.

Pub Date: May 9, 1997

ISBN: 0-471-14439-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Wiley

Review Posted Online: May 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1997

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


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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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.


Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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