Ruth Douillette

Who knows what accolades you’d garner if, like Beethoven, you’d been perched on a piano bench for hours on end at age three or, like Tiger Woods, you swung a club when barely out of diapers? In Bounce, Matthew Syed challenges the conventional wisdom that says some people are just born prodigies. Instead, he argues convincingly that it’s practice, practice, practice that begets talent: “You can only purchase access to this prime neural real estate by building up a bank deposit of thousands of hours of purposeful practice.”

Syed bolsters his premise with examples of the early influence of parents and practice on those we exalt as “naturals.” Beethoven, Picasso, the Williams sisters and others were all handed the tools of their trade in toddlerhood, and all put in well above the threshold of 10,000 hours of concerted practice that research shows is the crossover point to “world-class status” in a complex task (a premise also explored in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers). Syed, the British number-one table tennis champion in 1995 and an Olympic athlete, provides information from studies and statistics, but also speaks from experience. He’s the first to tell you that his impressive athletic attributes were not granted at birth, but were honed over time.

While his book addresses well-known names in sports, chess and the arts, Syed also connects his premise to occupations such as piloting airplanes and fighting fires, in which years on the job develop “the kind of knowledge built through deep experience . . . encoded in the brain and central nervous system” that beginners do not have: the instinct, for example, that tells a seasoned fire chief to pull his men from a building seconds before it collapses in flames.

Syed gives a nod to Gladwell’s “marvelous book” while he bounces in a different direction, focusing on the science of competition and tackling questions like why even the greats sometimes “choke” under pressure. With commentary on topics ranging from meaningful practice to the moral and ethical implications of performance-enhancing drugs, Bounce is a philosophical and thought-provoking book.

Who knows what accolades you’d garner if, like Beethoven, you’d been perched on a piano bench for hours on end at age three or, like Tiger Woods, you swung a club when barely out of diapers? In Bounce, Matthew Syed challenges the conventional wisdom that says some people are just born prodigies. Instead, he argues […]

Remember the textbook diagram of the atom? That’s so last century. Today there is no way to depict the latest discoveries in astrophysics—like dark matter, for example, which makes its presence known only by the effect it exerts upon the visible elements in the cosmos. Although there is no visual evidence of this mysterious force, scientists now believe that nearly 90 percent of the universe is comprised of the stuff.

Thankfully, Anil Ananthaswamy, consulting editor for New Scientist, has a way of making you “see” even the invisible, taking readers to the distant edges of the cosmos while keeping them grounded with clear scientific explanations. For his new book, The Edge of Physics, Ananthaswamy traveled to 10 disparate locations across the globe to watch scientists perform cutting-edge experiments, determined to discover another piece of the puzzle of the universe. In a comfortable narrative style, he describes the places he visits and the scientists who remain single-mindedly focused on their tasks.

Scientists in the South Pole drill two kilometers into the Antarctic ice to lower optical devices deep into the hole, hoping to catch signs of neutrinos as they pass through the earth on their journey through space; a similar experiment goes on in Siberia’s Lake Baikal. South Africa challenges Australia for the privilege of building the world’s largest radio telescope in the extensive Karoo. From the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider and more, Ananthaswamy paints a vivid picture of scientific investigations in harsh working conditions.

The physics is there too, of course, interspersed throughout the narrative: neutrinos, bosons, fermions, string theory, space-time and more. Even with textbook definitions firmly in mind—the book includes a helpful glossary—the lay imagination struggles to grasp such foreign concepts. Having some prior knowledge of physics would be useful, but even for readers who don’t know a neutrino from Adam, these interesting tales of human endeavor make The Edge of Physics a trip worth taking. 

Ruth Douillette is an essayist and photographer.

Remember the textbook diagram of the atom? That’s so last century. Today there is no way to depict the latest discoveries in astrophysics—like dark matter, for example, which makes its presence known only by the effect it exerts upon the visible elements in the cosmos. Although there is no visual evidence of this mysterious force, […]

The Kids Are All Right is a memoir in four-part harmony. It gives the feel of being a guest at a family reunion and eavesdropping on siblings, Amanda, Liz, Dan, and Diana. The Welch children, actually adults now—Diana, the youngest, is 32—share and compare childhood memories of the deaths of their parents and the difficult years that followed as they struggled not to lose track of each other.

Four distinct voices combine to make this memoir particularly poignant: bold, brash Amanda; considerate, responsible Liz; troubled, rebellious Dan; and shy, insecure Diana. The result is a comprehensive family tale—sad, but ultimately, triumphant.

The kids are "all right" until the fateful night in 1983 when their father dies in a car crash, leaving considerable debt, along with questions about his death—was it an accident or murder? Their mother, famed soap star Ann Williams, deep in grief, is forced to sell their home and move the children to a house that strains to hold the family of five.

Then Williams is diagnosed with cancer, and the children take care of their progressively ailing mother—cooking, cleaning, and shopping squeezed in during after-school hours. The weakened family foundation finally crumbles when Williams dies and the children, ranging in age from seven to 19, are dispersed to live with separate families, an arrangement planned by Williams before her death.

Being separated from each other was another loss that nearly destroyed the already eroded family. Clearly the children suffered, made bad choices, and engaged in activities their parents would have despaired of. But they also displayed a remarkable strength and resiliency, and unconditional love for each other. Despite the physical distance between them, blood ties remained tightly knotted, stretched but not snapped by distance. Of this their parents would rejoice.

The Welches were fortunate to have a trust fund untouched by family debt that provided for their education and paid for their living arrangements. Money can't buy happiness, true, but it eased their trials by providing a layer of financial security. The real security, however, was in the foundation of family love and loyalty they learned from their parents. This is the bond that saw them through.

This memoir pieces together the fragments of their lives and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly with the honesty and strength of survivors. Growing up is never easy. Growing up orphaned, harder still. But all four make it to productive adulthood. The kids are indeed all right. This is a book that's tough to put down, and tougher still to forget.

Ruth Douillette is an essayist and photographer.

The Kids Are All Right is a memoir in four-part harmony. It gives the feel of being a guest at a family reunion and eavesdropping on siblings, Amanda, Liz, Dan, and Diana. The Welch children, actually adults now—Diana, the youngest, is 32—share and compare childhood memories of the deaths of their parents and the difficult […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!