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See Inside August 2008

Reviews: "The Universe in a Nutshell"

The Universe in a Nutshell -- Lost Tribes -- Science and Romance in China

A BRIFER HISTORY OF TIME
by Stephen Hawking, with Leonard Mlodinow. Bantam Trade Paperback, 2008

“The title of this book,” the authors write, “differs by only two letters from that of a book first published in 1988.” That book was Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a publishing phenomenon that sold more than 10 million copies. Despite its success, readers confessed to difficulty in grasping its more abstruse concepts. Hawking and Mlodinow (a physicist and writer) eliminated many of the technical explanations and clarified and expanded on the subjects of greatest interest—the creation of the universe, curved space, quantum gravity. They discuss developments during the past two decades in string theory and the discoveries of dark matter and dark energy. Clarity and conciseness do not have the almost mystical power of the original, but the book is a delight to read—and its new softcover makes it perfect for the proverbial summer day in the hammock.

JACOB'S LEGACY: A GENETIC VIEW OF JEWISH HISTORY
by David B. Goldstein. Yale University Press, 2008

Goldstein, a geneticist at Duke University, combines jargon-free genetics with fascinating biblical history to probe the mysteries of 3,000 years of Jewish peregrinations. Is an obscure South African Bantu group one of the lost tribes? Where did the remote Mountain Jews of Kurdis­tan and Dagestan come from? (Who even knew there were Mountain Jews?) Is the priestly lineage truly passed from father to son? To paraphrase the old ad for rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to love this book. It is a specific—and gripping—example of how the lens of genetics will eventually inform our understanding of all peoples.

THE MAN WHO LOVED CHINA: THE FANTASTIC STORY OF THE ECCENTRIC SCIENTIST WHO UNLOCKED THE MYSTERIES OF THE MIDDLE KINGDOM
by Simon Winchester. HarperCollins, 2008

Excerpt:

In 1943 a brilliant young biochemist arrived in war-torn China on a mission for the British government. Joseph Needham had become infatuated with China six years earlier, when he fell in love with a visiting Chinese student at the University of Cambridge. As Win­chest­er (author of the best-selling The Professor and the Madman) recounts, the enigmatic country and its little-known legacy of scientific innovation became Needham’s lifework:

“For Joseph Needham would assemble all his findings and their significance between the covers of a book—a book so immense in scale and so magisterial in authority that it stands today alongside the greatest of the world’s great encyclopedias and dictionaries as a monument to the power of human understanding.

“The book, the first volume of which was published in 1954, and which had swollen to eighteen volumes by the time Needham died in 1995, continues to be produced today and now stands at twenty-four volumes, with 15,000 pages and 3 million words. It is called Science and Civilisation in China, and it is universally acknowledged to be the greatest work of explanation of the Middle Kingdom that has yet been created in western history. And all of it was planned and a huge proportion of it written by this bespectacled, owlish, fearless adventurer—a man who, since he was also a nudist, a wild dancer, an accordion player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer, was seen by some as decidedly odd.”

This article was originally published with the title "The Universe in a Nutshell Lost Tribes Science and Romance in China."

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