An entertaining, instructive Henry Higgins of a volume: it’ll transform readers into enraptured Eliza Doolittles.



A Berkeley linguist conducts a learned, lively tour through the lush garden of human languages.

McWhorter (Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, 2000, etc.) begins with a childhood shock of recognition: Hearing a little girl speaking Hebrew, he suddenly realized that English was not the only language in the world. “This,” he writes, “was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with foreign languages.” He estimates that the first language, from which all other languages descend, emerged about 150,000 years ago in Africa. Since then, many thousands of languages have arisen, fallen, and died. Today, there are some 6,000 varieties around the globe, although 96 percent of the world’s population speaks one of the “top twenty,” and many surviving tongues are in imminent danger of demise. McWhorter explains how so many languages could have developed from a common ancestor and assails the popular notion that this “proto-language” could be reconstructed. Discussing pidgins and creoles, he dismisses such common misconceptions as the belief that English is somehow more “adaptable” than other languages because it borrows many of its words; so do many other languages spoken by people who have lots of contact with lots of other people. Other news: Dialects (like “Black English”) developed in parallel with standard, written forms and are not merely ungrammatical versions of their more elegant cousins; in many languages, double negatives are common, and distinctions between past and perfect tenses are rare; so-called “primitive” languages spoken by hunter-gatherers today are no simpler than French or Chinese—in fact, they are often more complicated. With a brisk, witty style that reveals a comprehensive knowledge of music and popular culture, McWhorter rarely lets his tour wander into the tangled wood of academic jargon and arcane illustration.

An entertaining, instructive Henry Higgins of a volume: it’ll transform readers into enraptured Eliza Doolittles.

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2002

ISBN: 0-7167-4473-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2001

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A quirky wonder of a book.



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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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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