From subatomic particles to the cosmos, and every bird in between

If you had asked me a month ago what quantum theory was, I would have tried to answer only to stop once I realized 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 renowned theoretical physics translator Michio Kaku, comes into play. Named for the theoretical stage in 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 Feodor Chin’s deliberate if at times robotic clarity, begins with statements, from a handful of companies, which we’re already there.

Kaku explains how we arrived at such an inflection point, where the potential benefits of quantum computing, i.e. computing at the subatomic level, without the need for microchips, increasingly outweigh the risks, such as the need for extremely check. 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 jaw-dropping future is the focus of the last five hours or so of the audiobook, which explores the real-world impacts quantum computing could have: altering our immune systems to stave off cancer and Alzheimer’s, increasing crop yields, ending to world hunger. As Kaku states, familiar common sense laws are routinely violated on an atomic level; but his lucid prose and his thought process make abundant sense of this technological breakthrough.

While Kaku’s eyes mainly look forward, inside AT THE ORIGIN OF TIME: Stephen Hawkings Final Theory (Random House Audio, 12 hours, 10 minutes), cosmologist Thomas Hertog focuses more on the past, especially Hawking’s groundbreaking 1988 text A Brief History of Time and Hertog’s working relationship with that text and its author. In this scientific intervention, Hertog recounts the moment, in 2002, in which Hawking declared: I have changed my mind. The short story is written from the wrong perspective. Hertog agreed.

Ethan Kelly reads the audiobook with a confidence that suggests he’s just emerged from the same lecture halls at Cambridge University where Hawking and Hertog discussed their ideas: this audiobook can make the listener feel smarter than he or she is. We were thinking about cosmology all the wrong way, Hawking and Hertog theorized, from a divine vision that obscured the essential truth of scientists: we are inside the universe, not somehow outside it.

Some of the deep dives into new inner viewpoints might miss 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 the artist’s brilliance and sense of Hawking’s humor. I’m dying, Hawking tapped once into the machine that spoke for him, paining Hertog for a long break before it finished: for a cup of tea.

To help us feel grounded 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 for a better future (Macmillan Audio, 9 hours, 30 minutes). 21-year-old Craig is something of a prodigy in the vast (and growing) world of birdwatchers. He recorded 325 species in just one year when he was 6 years old. While his early travels took her to the English countryside from his home outside Bristol, she soon accompanied her parents to Ecuador, Antarctica and beyond. At 17, she had become the youngest person ever to see more than 5,000 species of birds.

Much of that is due to her parents, who were already a well-known birding family when she was born and took her on their birding trips, or twitches, starting when she was 9 days old. We created a complicated puzzle, the three of us, says Craig, imbuing his book with real pathos. Her mother, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, struggled with her mental health: her birds were her comfort and became her husband and daughters as well. Woven into the stories of jungle adventures and rare bird sightings 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 the birds that made us, she says, if only for moments at a time, lift our eyes away from our lives and up to the sky.

Journalists Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal have always loved birdwatching, but, now retired, their interest has grown much more. their audiobook, A WING AND A PRAYER: The Race to Save Our Endangered 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 man-made forces such as the destruction of habitat and climate change.

The Gyllenhaals are skilled storytellers, and double narration is a rare and welcome approach for an audiobook written in the first person plural. Over the past 50 years, nearly one-third of North America’s bird population has gone extinct, says Graybill’s introduction. This translates into three billion birds of all shapes and sizes. They tell some of conservation’s high-profile success stories, such as those of the spotted owl and bald eagle, as well as lesser-known cases such as that of the grasshopper sparrow, a tufted bird that is one of the most endangered in the United States. United. As they travel, they encounter birds carrying tiny backpacks of transistors and a biologist who has learned to impersonate whooping cranes to get close to them.

Mary Oliver, who died in 2019, is well known for the love and attention she gave to the natural world through poetry. Poems, to her, were a way of praising the world, little hallelujahs, as she put it, a way of saying thank you for the beautiful Earth, says actress and storyteller Sophia Bush at the beginning of WILD AND PRECIOUS: A Celebration of Mary Oliver (Pushkin Industries, 4 hours, 11 minutes). In a rich, textured production, Bush takes the listener through a tribute to Oliver’s legacy, complete with musings from admirers who knew her beyond her oeuvre. Selections from Oliver’s poetry are presented from recordings Oliver himself made.

What emerges is a vivid picture of its various impacts on so many different readers, from a rabbi who found teaching moments in his work to Oliver’s former students at Bennington College. What has stuck with chef and writer Samin Nosrat is Oliver’s obsession with paying attention. Actor Rainn Wilson sees a non-religious spirituality in the poems, which are about God the way you find a pile of bones on a path or the way you feel the wind in a fern. Even for those familiar with Oliver’s work, this collage of voices helps build a more complete understanding of who he was as a person. As the poet Elizabeth Bradfield recalls, we talked about whales. We talked about dogs. We never talked about poetry. And that was fine.

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