4 stars
A planetarium in book form

Back in 1977, Powers of Ten awed many children and adults alike with a presentation of our scientific understanding of the universe at different orders of magnitude, zooming out from a couple on a picnic blanket to the observable universe, then zooming back in, all the way down to the level of the hypothesized activity inside a single proton. (You can view the 9 minute film on YouTube.)

Astronomer Caleb Scharf’s book The Zoomable Universe updates this approach to our current understanding of the universe, aided by modernized visuals created by illustrator Ron Miller and a graphic design firm.

The book doesn’t start the journey on a picnic blanket, but at an order of magnitude of 10^27 meters—the “diameter of the cosmic horizon”—and ends at 10^-35 meters, the Plack length. At each order of magnitude, Scharf attempts to bring out astonishing facts, while narrating the journey in a conversational style.

Full-page photographs, computer renderings and information graphics support each section of the book. Their quality and aesthetic style are somewhat inconsistent throughout the book, ranging from pretty basic computer renderings of imaginary planets to detailed and striking illustrations like the one below.

Illustration of the different forces at work on planet Earth. (Credit: Caleb Scharf / Ron Miller / SW Infographics. Fair use.)

Scharf’s text is informative, but it’s in the nature of a book like this to provide limited depth on any one topic. The objective here is to create a sense of wonder, and a high level understanding of how the universe operates at different scales. In that sense, the book functions as a kind of paper planetarium.

To Scharf’s credit, he does not shy away from attempting to explain the weird and wonderful world of the subatomic, and the book’s illustration of the famous double-slit experiment and the different interpretations of its results is especially lucid.

The book concludes with a notes section that is very much worth reading, giving additional background on the thinking that went into each section, and pointing to books, papers and websites for further exploration. I give the author high marks for this approach: notes don’t have to be boring!

While I found much of the material in The Zoomable Universe quite familiar, I still appreciated its thoughtful organization and the engaging presentation. I would recommend the book especially for younger readers, or those seeking to re-engage with astronomy, physics and biology (perhaps after a less than stellar experience learning about those subjects in school).

5 stars
Kindling a joyful connection with nature through art and poetry

I’ll be honest with you: I rarely enjoy poetry; for the most part, it creates in me only the “feeling that I should be feeling something”. It’s a different story when poetry is set to song or to beautiful illustrations. Perhaps other readers create their own mental melodies when they read mere words; I require the assist.

With The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created something even I can appreciate: a book that, through poetry and gorgeous art, invites a profound re-connection with nature.

The premise of the book is that words that refer to the natural world—words like “adder”, “conker”, “otter” and “wren”—are slowly disappearing from the language of children. And surely for many children growing up today, especially in urban environments, this is very true.

To restore these words—and the connection with nature they represent—to our lives, the book invites us to summon nature by reading out acrostic spells. Each poem is set alongside a beautiful full-page illustration showing the subject (e.g., a dandelion plant) in isolation; turn the page, and you’ll discover a two-page watercolor showing the subject again, now within nature. The spell for “bramble” begins as follows:

Bramble is on the march again,

Rolling and arching along the hedges

into parks on the city edges

All streets are suddenly thick with briar:

cars snarled fast, business over.

Moths have come in their millions,

drawn to the thorns. The air flutters.

This spell is then followed by an immersive illustration, making the most of the book’s large (27.7 cm x 37.6 cm) format:

Illustration of bramble, from The Lost Words. (Credit: Jackie Morris. Fair use.)

The Lost Words is not a science book; it does not provide explanation or context. In the beauty of its spells and illustrations, it builds something arguably even more important: the emotional foundation for our interest in nature. We will fail to conserve what we do not care about.

There is no doubt that Morris and Macfarlane have created a masterpiece, a timeless work that can be enjoyed by all ages. It is a book of few words, and it invites meditative reflection more than reading. I expect to pick it up again when it’s too cold and rainy outside to take a walk, but I still long to kindle my memory of the beauty of the natural world.

3 stars
Loosely organized introduction to DNA and its role in exploring humanity's heritage

At the end of Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, we find an interview with the author. In it, he explains his writing process:

This may sound incredibly pretentious, but I write, and it only becomes clear to me what the point is about three quarters of the way through any particular section. (…) Fiction writers sometimes say that they don’t know what their characters are going to do next, and they are surprised when it happens. I feel like that sometimes in my writing.

It doesn’t sound pretentious to me, it’s just not a coherent way to organize history, especially not a project as ambitious as the one Rutherford is ostensibly attempting (the subtitle promises “The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes”).

What this book delivers is, instead, the following:

  • an overview of how our hard-won ability to sequence the DNA of the living and the long-dead has given us new insights into the history of early humans, including the inter-breeding of Homo sapiens with Neanderthals and of Neanderthals with Denisovans;

  • examples of anthropological and cross-disciplinary research projects utilizing DNA, with a somewhat parochial emphasis on British examples such as the People of the British Isles research project, and the discovery and DNA analysis of Richard III;

  • arguments on the limitations of DNA research, especially at the individual level, and about the pseudoscience of racial divisions;

  • a discussion of historical and ongoing evolution of humans;

  • a fair bit of griping about misrepresentations of science by media, corporations, and assorted charlatans, some sniping at creationists, and a bit more inside knowledge about Adam Rutherford himself than most readers are likely to require.

Rutherford is a geneticist and a presenter of science documentaries; he views himself as a storyteller, and if what you’re looking for is a casual, conversational and occasionally funny read about the (more or less) current state of genetics, as well as some solid debunking of racist nonsense, this is a fine book.

It is not, however, a well-organized history of humankind “retold through our genes”, nor is the writing so consistently good and entertaining to make up for this lack of organization. 3 out of 5 stars—there was enough new science for me to not give up on the book, but I would only recommend it with reservations.

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