A breathtaking survey of the human mind exponentially accelerating the accumulation of knowledge, from pratfalls to ventures...

THE UPRIGHT THINKERS

THE HUMAN JOURNEY FROM LIVING IN TREES TO UNDERSTANDING THE COSMOS

A selective, guided tour of the human accumulation of knowledge from American physicist and former CalTech instructor Mlodinow (Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, 2012, etc.).

In this smooth celebration of the human project, the author places a decided emphasis on its cerebral aspects: “The thirst for knowledge is the most human of all our desires.” If at times Mlodinow drifts into hubris—“we have shaped our environment to our needs, rather than allowing our environment to shape—or defeat—us”—it can be excused as a byproduct of his enthusiasm, the thrill of deciphering nature’s puzzle and appreciating the striking characters who pioneered scientific discoveries. It is an endlessly fascinating story, this ineluctable quest that required getting out of the head’s comfort zone and accepting change, and Mlodinow’s explanations of often perplexing thinking are easy to digest. He throws out ideas and theories that are consistently thought-provoking—e.g., “Animal brains first evolved for the most primal of reasons: to better enable motion.” The author divides the book into three sections: the development of the human mind, touching down at critical junctures; the revolutionary entrance of the hard sciences; and quantum physics, developed thanks to the “brainpower in Central Europe,” which Mlodinow fittingly introduces via Tom Stoppard (“It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong”). Though the book has a snug cohesiveness, the author clearly enjoys his role as storyteller, introducing entertaining, illuminating asides—e.g., Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, “had a huge belly,” because she was primarily vegetarian; and “fortunately for science, in the Arab world the ruling class did find value in Greek learning.” Mlodinow also reacquaints readers with significant characters, from Galileo to Planck, who made the incomprehensible comprehensible.

A breathtaking survey of the human mind exponentially accelerating the accumulation of knowledge, from pratfalls to ventures beyond the veil.

Pub Date: May 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-307-90823-0

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

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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