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 tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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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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