A scintillating popular account of the interplay between mathematical physics and astronomical observations.

THE HUNT FOR VULCAN

...AND HOW ALBERT EINSTEIN DESTROYED A PLANET, DISCOVERED RELATIVITY, AND DECIPHERED THE UNIVERSE

Levenson (Science Writing/MIT; Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist, 2009, etc.) connects Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity to Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In their day, each provided "a radical new picture of gravity" that ultimately depended on astronomical confirmation.

For Newton, his moment of truth occurred in 1687, when he established the universality of the inverse-square law of gravitation that governed the elliptical orbits of the planets. He showed that it also applied to the path of the major comet of 1680. "It was cosmic proof,” writes Levenson, “that the same laws that governed ordinary experience—the apple's fall, an arrow’s flight, the moon's constant path—ruled all experience, to the limits of the universe.” Newton based his theory on the estimated distance from the sun to the then-known planets. Pierre-Simon Laplace extended Newton's theory to account for the orbital perturbations caused by interactions between neighboring planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. Similar calculations allowed astronomers to predict the existence of Neptune based on discrepancies in the elliptical orbit of Uranus. The case of Mercury was more puzzling because its divergence from an ellipse could not be accounted for by the gravitational pull of neighboring Venus. Scientists entertained the spurious hypothesis of the existence of a heretofore-unobserved planet orbiting the sun, which they named Vulcan. Einstein solved the dilemma by replacing Newton's inverse-square law with his theory of general relativity, a complicated mathematical theory based on a simple geometrical image of "the sun with its great mass, creat[ing] a bulge in space time." Rather than action-at-a-distance, he introduced the curvature of space-time as a medium for the propagation of gravity. This allowed him to make a more precise prediction of Mercury's orbit, which was verified in 1917 by observations made during a solar eclipse. Though brief, Levenson’s narrative is a well-structured, fast-paced example of exemplary science writing.

A scintillating popular account of the interplay between mathematical physics and astronomical observations.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9898-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2015

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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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LAB GIRL

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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