This review was first published by Booklist on March 1, 2020.
Rather than present a straight biography, Livio’s (Is God a Mathematician?, 2009) goal is to explore the parallels between Galileo’s fate and the science denialism happening today. He makes apt arguments and offers compelling reasons why science and religion shouldn’t be at odds. Livio is an astrophysicist and his perspective on Galileo’s importance as a professional scientist is particularly valuable. Galileo didn’t just make grand discoveries—he invented new experimental methodologies, established math as an essential tool for scientific work, and challenged Aristotelian primacy of thought experiments with verifiable observation. In short, he created the modern scientific method. Livio also explores Galileo’s work in the arts and humanities: he studied philosophy; he was an accomplished musician, poet, and visual artist; and he was active in the arts community. His arts background was essential to how he made many of his breakthrough scientific discoveries. Livio argues that the distinction we make between the humanities and the sciences is false and damaging, and that Galileo illuminates a better balance between the two. A refreshing perspective on Galileo’s legacy.
This review was first published by Booklist on December 1, 2019.
**STARRED REVIEW** This comprehensively researched and beautifully designed reference work contains profiles of over 80 scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and inventors whose work changed the world. Each profile is between 1-4 easily digested pages that cover essential information. What differentiates this work from similar ones is its scope and inclusivity. It covers history from approximately 650 BCE through the present and includes figures from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the modern Americas. Effort has been made to include many women, too often overlooked by historians for their contributions to science. A broad scope of scientific fields are represented: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, technology, geology, oceanography. All the giants are here: Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Curie, Einstein, Turing, Goodall. Alongside them are lesser known but equally impressive people: Zhang Heng, Al-Khwarizmi, Hildegard of Bingen, António Egas Moniz, Tu Youyou. Profiles are organized based on historical era to highlight the progression of scientific thought and discovery. At the end of each section is a directory of other individuals from the era, each accompanied by a paragraph of basic information. This is an excellent resource to both browse and to serve as a launch pad for further research. Appropriate for middle school and up.
This title has been recommended for young adult readers:
YA/Curriculum Support: Easily digested, inclusive profiles of influential scientists will bolster both STEM and history coursework.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 15, 2019.
Mainstream histories of sf and fantasy cover the main eras, the big names, the important publications and events. But there’s more to any history than just the mainstream. There are obscure authors, forgotten works, and a plethora of what might have beens, plus the myriad ways sf and fantasy have influenced and been influenced by art, design, architecture, fashion, music, and fandom. Lost Transmissions explores some of these often-overlooked pieces of the history of sf and fantasy. How would the genre be different if Jules Verne had successfully published the first novel he submitted? If William Gibson’s screenplay for Alien III had been made, or if E.T. had been a creepy goblin movie? From the sf fashion of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, to the Afrofuturism of Janelle Monáe’s music, to Soleri’s architecture of arcology (best recognized as Luke Skywalker’s dome house on Tatooine,) to contributed essays by a roster of luminaries reflecting on their favorite obscurities, this is a fascinating enrichment of the history of sf and fantasy.
This review was first published by Booklist on October 15, 2019.
**STARRED REVIEW** Medieval Bodies was a Sunday Times History Book of the Year when published in Britain last year, and it is now coming out in the U.S. Hartnell, a professor of the history of art and visual culture, brings together his vast knowledge of medieval art and writing to examine how European and Middle Eastern peoples of the time understood the workings of their own bodies. He starts with medical texts and illustrations, explores the legacy of classical Greek and Roman teachings, and surveys the general practices of medicine and healing during this period. But he doesn’t stop there. The body becomes a metaphor for medieval culture overall that informs our understanding of everything from the politics, religious beliefs, and class structures of this swath of Western history to the arts and interpersonal relationships of those who peopled it. Armed with Hartnell’s telling, readers will reassess their traditional view of the Middle Ages. Far from a Dark Age of superstition and ignorance, this was a time of curiosity, inquiry, and experimentation—a collision of the legacies of the past and the realities of the present. His knowledge and insight are impressive, and he shows uses [sic] with wit and humor.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2019.
Science fiction starts with science and extrapolates possibilities. But how, and how often, does science fiction influence the course of science and technology? Levy does an admirable job of teasing apart this relationship by exploring the history of science fiction and tracing the origins of many ideas which came to dominate science over the years: H.G. Wells envisioned the atom bomb and tanks, for example; credit cards were predicted in a work written in 1888; and Star Trek gave us ideas for 3D printing, telecommunications, and health apps. In some cases, science fiction explores scientific ideas before they enter the mainstream. In others, people who grew up on science fiction work to make those stories a reality. Much of what Levy illuminates is already well-known but there are some surprising connections here, too. Most notably, he argues that telepresence (as portrayed in the movie Avatar) belongs to the evolution of videophones. He presents information in an accessible and engrossing way, highlighting many forgotten classic works of science fiction. This work should appeal to anyone who’s interested in the history of science, technology, and science fiction.
This title has been recommended for young adult readers:
YA/S – special interest: High school and even advanced middle school readers with an interest in science fiction and technology will appreciate this accessible book.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 3, 2019.
Heroes of the Space Age offers profiles of eight individuals who played significant roles in the early days of the Space Age, from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, including the first men and women in space (Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, and Valentina Tereshkova), the first men on the moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin), and the first man to occupy a space station (Pete Conrad). Significantly, Pyle (Interplanetary Robots, 2019) includes people in pivotal roles on the ground: Gene Krantz, NASA flight controller during the first moon landing, and Margaret Hamilton, who designed the computer software for the Apollo missions. The author notes he sought to include diversity in these profiles, though the space race at that time was largely homogeneous. Each biography is brief but complete, though of greatest interest are the accounts of the work these individuals did as part of the space program. This is not a comprehensive collection of the hundreds of individuals involved but it’s a solid history of the earliest days of our exploration of space.
This review was first published by Booklist on March 15, 2019.
The Science Fiction Fanzine Reader offers a fascinating look into the culture of early science fiction fandom during its first three decades. Given the cheap and ephemeral nature of these fanzines, this book is the culmination of a remarkable research project by Ortiz (Emshwiller, 2007). He collects dozens of articles, editorials, letters, and commentary written by sf fans between 1930 and 1960, as well as a handful of pieces where fans reflect back on their early days in fandom. It’s an engrossing glimpse into the mindset of sf readers in the middle of the twentieth century. This isn’t a straight history—readers need to have a solid knowledge of the history of science fiction and fandom in order to get the most out of it. The selections don’t seem to be in any order—they’re not grouped by theme or chronologically, which obscures broader patterns within the history of fanzines. Still, this book is for committed historians of the sf genre.
This review was first published by Booklist on January 1, 2019.
**STARRED REVIEW** Midnight in Chernobyl is a top-notch historical narrative: a tense, fast-paced, engrossing, and revelatory product of more than a decade of research. Higginbotham interviewed most of the surviving central participants in the disaster, examined volumes of newly declassified Soviet documents, and surveyed previous research and reportage. The result is a stunningly detailed account of the explosion of Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant on April 26, 1986. It offers a brief history of the development of the Soviet nuclear-power program leading up to the construction of the plant at Chernobyl, a second-by-second account of the night of the accident, the confluence of causes, the evacuation of the surrounding countryside, the containment and cleanup efforts, and a deep dive into the aftermath: the medical and environmental consequences, the political machinations and missteps, the role Chernobyl played in the downfall of the USSR, and the effect it had on the pursuit of nuclear power worldwide. For all its wealth of information, the work never becomes overwhelming or difficult to follow. Higginbotham humanizes the tale, maintaining a focus on the people involved and the choices, both heroic and not, they made in unimaginable circumstances. This is an essential human tale with global consequences.
This review was first published by Booklist on November 2, 2018.
Brake (Different Engines, 2007, with Neil Hook) is a scholar and authority on how science fiction can influence the course of science and define our popular perceptions. The short essays—none longer than half a dozen pages—collected here are grouped into four main themes: “Space,” “Time,” “Machine,” and “Monster.” Some essays fit more than one theme, but they give the work a useful structure. Each essay is a quick read, but none go into much depth. Anyone looking for a robust scholarly treatment of the subject might be disappointed. Brake takes a valuable historical view, citing several stories from the earliest days of the genre, dating back to the 1600s and earlier, as well as classic and modern movies. However, the examples he chooses seem somewhat random and lack modern literary selections. He examines the history of science from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and the atomic bomb and on to the invention of computers and the internet. The book comes across as almost a random selection of short works; nonetheless, it is insightful, fascinating, and an easy read.
This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2018.
Nevala-Lee (Eternal Empire, 2013) presents a necessary addition to the history of science fiction: a critical look at the life and work of John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding magazine and the central architect of science fiction’s golden age. This period, and the men most central to it, defined the path that still dominates the genre today. Part biography, part history, Astounding covers Campbell’s relationships with his most important writers (Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard); their tumultuous personal lives; the role their wives played in their careers; and the effect WWII and the atomic bomb had on the genre. Campbell and others truly believed science fiction could save the world. Nevala-Lee delves into the development of dianetics and Campbell’s split with Hubbard over Scientology. He also addresses the many biases, prejudices, and personal failings of these eminent men. At times, it feels like Nevala-Lee attempts to accomplish too much, and the mix of history with biography isn’t always comfortable, but it’s all necessary to understand how science fiction became what it is today.