From Subatomic Particles to the Cosmos, and Every Bird in Between


If you’d asked me a month ago what quantum theory was, I would have tried to answer only to stop myself once I realized that I didn’t actually know. It’s one of those concepts, like space-time or artificial intelligence, that many of us recognize (from science fiction, from the news) without ever really understanding them. That’s where QUANTUM SUPREMACY: How the Quantum Computer Revolution Will Change Everything (Random House Audio, 10 hours, 41 minutes), by the renowned translator of theoretical physics Michio Kaku, comes in. Named for the theoretical stage at which “a radically new type of computer, called a quantum computer, could decisively outperform an ordinary digital supercomputer on specific tasks,” the audiobook, read with deliberate — if at times robotic — clarity by Feodor Chin, begins with claims, by a handful of companies, that we are already there.

Kaku explains how we’ve come to such an “inflection point,” at which the potential benefits of quantum computing — that is, computing at the subatomic level, without the need for microchips — are increasingly outweighing the risks, like the need for extremely controlled conditions. Kaku spends much of the audiobook recounting the history of computing, bringing listeners back to the Turing machine and the invention of transistors as crucial foundations.

That mind-blowing future is the focus of the final five or so hours of the audiobook, which explores the real-world impacts quantum computing could have: altering our immune systems to avoid cancer and Alzheimer’s, increasing crop yields, ending world hunger. As Kaku puts it, “the familiar laws of common sense are routinely violated at the atomic level”; but his lucid prose and thought process make abundant sense of this technological turning point.

Whereas Kaku’s eyes look mostly ahead, in ON THE ORIGIN OF TIME: Stephen Hawking’s Final Theory (Random House Audio, 12 hours, 10 minutes), the cosmologist Thomas Hertog focuses more on the past, specifically Hawking’s groundbreaking 1988 text “A Brief History of Time” and Hertog’s own working relationship with that text and its author. In this scientific intervention, Hertog recounts the moment, in 2002, when Hawking declared: “I have changed my mind. ‘Brief History’ is written from the wrong perspective.” Hertog agreed.

Ethan Kelly reads the audiobook with a confidence that suggests he has just emerged from the same Cambridge University halls where Hawking and Hertog discussed their ideas — this audiobook can make the listener feel smarter than he or she is. We’d been thinking of cosmology all wrong, Hawking and Hertog theorized, from a “God’s-eye view” that obscured the scientist’s essential truth: “We are within the universe, not somehow outside it.”

Some of the deep dives into new, interior viewpoints might lose the average listener, but the heavy stuff is broken up with refreshing anecdotes that illustrate not only the author’s devotion to his mentor but also the extent of Hawking’s brilliance — and sense of humor. “I am dying,” Hawking once typed into the machine that spoke for him, making Hertog suffer through a long pause before he finished: “… for … a … cup … of … tea.”

To help us feel anchored again in our physical world, there are birds. At least, they’ve always served that purpose for Mya-Rose Craig, the author of BIRDGIRL: Looking to the Skies in Search of a Better Future (Macmillan Audio, 9 hours, 30 minutes). The 21-year-old Craig is a prodigy of sorts within the vast (and growing) world of birders. She clocked 325 species in one year alone — when she was 6. While early trips took her around the English countryside from her home outside Bristol, soon she was accompanying her parents to Ecuador, Antarctica and beyond. By 17, she had become the youngest person ever to have seen more than 5,000 bird species.

Much of that is thanks to her parents, who “were already a well-known birding family” when she was born and took her on their birding trips, or twitches, beginning when she was 9 days old. “We made a complicated puzzle, the three of us,” Craig narrates, imbuing her book with genuine pathos. Her mother, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, struggled with her mental health: Birds were her solace, and they became her husband and daughter’s, too. Woven into the stories of jungle adventures and spotting rare birds are the emotional threads of family life, as well as the challenges of being a prominent birder and conservationist in a field dominated by white men. There were times when it became too much for Craig to bear, but “there was something about birds that made us,” she says, “even just for moments at a time, lift our eyes away from our lives and up to the skies.”

The journalists Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal always loved birding, but, now in retirement, their interest has grown much deeper. Their audiobook, A WING AND A PRAYER: The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds (Simon & Schuster Audio, 9 hours, 3 minutes), read by Cassandra Campbell and Stephen Graybill, is the result of a 25,000-mile journey across the Americas in 2021, which they spent documenting the efforts of ornithologists and conservationists to save the world’s birds, almost universally threatened by anthropogenic forces like habitat destruction and climate change.

The Gyllenhaals are skillful storytellers, and the dual narration is a rare and welcome approach for an audiobook that was written in the first-person plural. “In the past 50 years nearly a third of the bird population in North America has withered away,” Graybill reads in the introduction. “That translates to three billion birds of all shapes and sizes.” They relate some of conservation’s “high-profile” success stories, like those of the spotted owl and the bald eagle, as well as lesser-known cases like that of the grasshopper sparrow, “a wisp of a bird” that is one of the most endangered in the United States. As they travel, they encounter birds carrying tiny transistor backpacks and a biologist who has learned to impersonate whooping cranes in order to get closer to them.

Mary Oliver, who died in 2019, is well known for the love and attention she gave the natural world through poetry. “Poems, for her, were a way to praise the world, ‘little alleluias,’ as she put it, a way to say thank you for the beautiful Earth,” the actor and narrator Sophia Bush says at the beginning of WILD AND PRECIOUS: A Celebration of Mary Oliver (Pushkin Industries, 4 hours, 11 minutes). In a rich and textured production, Bush guides the listener through a tribute to Oliver’s legacy, complete with reflections by admirers who knew her beyond her oeuvre. Selections from Oliver’s poetry are presented from recordings Oliver made herself.

What emerges is a vivid picture of her varied impacts on so many different readers, from a rabbi who has found teaching moments in her work to Oliver’s former students at Bennington College. What has stuck with the chef and writer Samin Nosrat is Oliver’s “obsession with paying attention.” The actor Rainn Wilson sees a nonreligious spirituality in the poems, which are “about God in the way that you find a pile of bones on a trail or the way that you hear the wind in a fern.” Even for those deeply familiar with Oliver’s work, this collage of voices helps build a more complete understanding of who she was as a person. As the poet Elizabeth Bradfield remembers, “We talked about whales. We talked about dogs. We never talked about poems. And that was OK.”

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2023-05-26 15:30:49


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