THE MIND'S SKY

HUMAN INTELLIGENCE IN A COSMIC CONTEXT

Ferris, who usually pokes around in outer space (Coming of Age in the Milky Way, The Red Shift, etc.), probes the inner kind as well in these amusing if far-fetched essays on the human mind, the search for extraterrestrial (and thus nonhuman) intelligence (SETI), and their intersection. For Ferris, SETI is a ``campaign of exploration,'' not a science, and all the more appealing for that; lying on the edge of knowledge, it proves fertile soil for the most extravagant musings. Where might a SETI signal come from, Ferris wonders? In a sort of computer-jock's ultimate wet dream, he imagines an ``interstellar network'' of automated space stations (``the most knowledgeable entity in the galaxy'') transmitting signals to similar networks in other galaxies. This Boschian vision leads to an exciting discussion of ``virtual reality,'' wherein computers simulate a foreign environment (say, the landscape of Mars) for stay-at-home explorers. Perhaps, Ferris posits, aliens are at this very moment sending us virtual-reality reproductions of their home planets. Ferris's ponderings also veer between the provocative and the preposterous. One bright essay analyzes star football quarterback Joe Montana as an uncanny example of a ``pre-motor cortex virtuoso,'' but another piece clumsily reduces mystical experience to a fuzzy ``confrontation'' with a ``program'' in the ``inner architecture'' of the brain. Other chapters, which read for the most part as independent pieces, consider comet strikes as a source of species extinction, near-death experience, apocalyptic prophecies, information theory, and the origin of laughter. Ferris's style remains as playful as ever (``we who came down from out of the forest seek to grow a forest of knowing among the stars''); too bad the thoughts seem sometimes stretched beyond their capacity to hold or convey the truth. The mind's sky indeed—but with clouds.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 1992

ISBN: 0-553-08040-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1991

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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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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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