Berry has earned these lofty sentiments about life’s abiding mystery and beauty. He has lived close to the earth, pressed...

LIFE IS A MIRACLE

AN ESSAY AGAINST MODERN SUPERSTITION

A strong polemic, in which Berry (Another Turn of the Crank, 1995, etc.) takes a wrecking ball to E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, reducing its smug assumptions regarding the fusion of science, art, and religion to so much rubble.

Berry does not see life as mechanical or predictable or understandable, and he does not believe it possible to reduce it to the scope of our understanding. This would be to “give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” For Berry, “life is a miracle” (as Edgar said to King Lear), and it is not containable in Wilson’s empiricism or his reductionism or his subordination of art to science—particularly as Berry sees science currently under the sway of corporate interests. Berry advocates intellectual standards that “shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety in scale and design.” Despite Wilson’s “pretensions to iconoclasm,” Berry sees orthodoxy and the hand of politics: “for the putative ability to explain everything along with the denial of religion (or the appropriation of its appearances) is a property of political tyranny.” The obtuse nature of the scientific attitude is crudely suggested in Berry’s caricature of Wilson responding to the prophet Isaiah in the following dialogue: “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as a flower of the field.” To which Wilson replies, “But, sir! Are you aware of the existence of the electromagnetic spectrum?” Somewhat lame, to be sure, but it illustrates Berry’s point: “I have been trying to learn a language particular enough to speak of this place as it is and of my being here as I am. . . . And then is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.”

Berry has earned these lofty sentiments about life’s abiding mystery and beauty. He has lived close to the earth, pressed his ear to the ground, and been rewarded with doubt and discernment.

Pub Date: June 1, 2000

ISBN: 1-58243-058-6

Page Count: 124

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2000

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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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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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