A wondrous nonfiction debut from the cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia, Why Fish Don’t Exist tells the story of a 19th-century scientist who rebuilt his life’s work after losing everything, an astonishing tale that becomes an investigation into the biggest questions of our lives.
When Lulu Miller was starting out as a science reporter, she encountered a story that would stick with her for a decade. It was the strange story of a 19th-century scientist named David Starr Jordan, who set out to discover all the world’s fish. Decade by decade, he built one of the most important fish collections ever seen. Until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit—sending thousands of his discoveries, housed in fragile glass jars, plummeting to the floor. In an instant, his life’s work was shattered.
Miller knew what she would do if she were in Jordan’s shoes. She would give up, flee town, and never look back. But Jordan? He surveyed the wreckage at his feet, found the first fish he recognized, and he painstakingly began to rebuild his collection. And this time, he introduced one clever innovation that, he believed, would protect it against the chaos of the world.
In Why Fish Don’t Exist, Miller digs into the passing anecdote she once heard about David Starr Jordan and tells his whole story. What was it that kept him going that day in 1906? What became of him? And who does he prove to be, in the end: a role model for how to thrive in a chaotic world, or a cautionary tale? Filled with suspense and surprise, and even a brush with murder, this remarkable book interweaves biography, memoir, and science to investigate the age-old question of how to go on when everything seems lost.
Lulu Miller is the cofounder of the NPR program Invisibilia, a series from NPR about the unseen forces that control human behavior. Before creating Invisibilia, she produced Radiolab for five years and was a reporter on the NPR Science Desk. She has an MFA from the University of Virginia on a Poe-Faulkner Fellowship. Her work has won honors from the Peabody Awards, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Associated Press.