VISIONS OF TECHNOLOGY

An anthology of short takes on the century’s progress in invention/technology, selected and presented chronologically by a prize-winning writer who himself has contributed to the history of technology (e.g., Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, 1995). The result is a mixed bag, leaving the reader frustrated (why this and not that) and querulous (where are we headed? what is the point?). Some selections celebrate moments of discovery; others discourse on the meaning and implications of an innovation, making value judgments. But, as he says at the outset, “The deep truth about the debate that fills this book is that it’s a debate among the orthodox. . . . No one, not even the Unabomber, has proposed a return to a Hobbesian garden of the primates.” So science and technology (the distinction blurs) emerge as the inevitable fallout of our enlarged brains. As for the limits, turn of the century writers like Henry Adams voiced fear of the dynamo, Samuel Gompers worried that the new industrial efficiencies were “producing wealth but grinding man”—themes that recur as the century develops. In due course, Rhodes gives us Oppenheimer confessing that scientists “have known sin,” and Newton Minow lamenting TV’s “vast wasteland.” There are also the daring visions and realities of the Pill, the transistor, the laser, and the artificial intelligence pursuits of Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky. In short, the 20th century is a technological dream—or nightmare, depending on your point of view. A serious omission is medical advances (because Rhodes says they are so well attended). Beginning with the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953, molecular biology and its applications have become the technological movers and shakers in the late 20th century—and of the century to come. In the end, Rhodes has given us a collection of trees (with some species missing). Pity, because with a little more effort and more than cursory commentary he could have created pathways leading to a forest of ideas.

Pub Date: March 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-684-83903-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1999

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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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