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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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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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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