Accessible, provocative and well worth investigating.

AN EXPLORER'S NOTEBOOK

ESSAYS ON LIFE, HISTORY, AND CLIMATE

An eminent Australian scientist and environmentalist’s collection of 33 highly readable essays and book reviews published between 1985 and 2012. 

Flannery (Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific, 2012, etc.) began his career as a student field biologist in the 1970s. By the 1980s, he was studying fossils as well as the evolution of kangaroos. Realizing that “rainforests were the habitat of much of Australia’s flora and fauna,” the author began studying living rain forests. This led to an interest in how climate influenced life on the planet both in the past and present. In this book, Flannery offers readers insight into his extraordinary career through selected essays he wrote about his own work as well as about the books that have shaped his thinking. The first section focuses on articles Flannery produced during almost 20 years in the field. It includes fascinating accounts of journeys he made to New Guinea to rediscover the elusive Bulmer’s fruit bat and to study rare species of tree kangaroos. In the second section, Flannery gathers together the reviews he wrote for the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His reading tastes run the gamut from ecological investigations by Sir David Attenborough to natural histories of man-eating predators and scorpions to biographies about John James Audubon and Rachel Carson; the reviews are both eloquent and trenchant. In the third section of the book, Flannery shares his articles on climate change. Written in the first decade of the 21st century, most of these essays critique the Australian government’s “disparagement” of renewable energy in favor of “dirty” and/or dangerous sources like coal and nuclear power. This last section is the weakest of the book, largely due to the fact that the essays (which were published between 2006 and 2007) are somewhat dated.

Accessible, provocative and well worth investigating.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2231-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2014

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

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

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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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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