Archive for the ‘Science writing’ Category

RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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ChrisHadfield You forget, sometimes, that there are people living in space.

During his 146-day sojourn on the International Space Station in 2012-2013, astronaut Chris Hadfield reminded me, and many others, about life in space, as well as the natural beauty of life on earth. While his crew carried out a record number of science experiments, Hadfield was also spreading curiosity and enthusiasm about life on the ISS through savvy use of social media.

He traded tweets with fellow Canadian William Shatner (“Standard Orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”). He posted YouTube videos about working without gravity (why you can’t wring out a washcloth in space, for instance). And he used his enviable perspective from the ISS cupola to share photos, including a Valentine’s Day heart for the planet.

Hadfield’s post-retirement memoir is loosely organized around three missions in space: from his first flight to Mir on the Atlantis, both now retired; through a spacewalk from Endeavor, installing a giant robotic arm on the ISS; to his last landing, after five months on the ISS, in the Russian Soyuz—”a wild 54-minute tumble to Earth that feels more or less like 15 explosions followed by a car crash.” Mission anecdotes are mixed with advice on how to think like an astronaut, much of which boils down to extreme, obsessive preparation and attention to detail. Canada didn’t even have a space agency when 9-year-old Hadfield decided that he wanted to be an astronaut, but he set himself to acquire the flight and engineering skills that he would need, spending years as a fighter pilot and test pilot until reality caught up with his dreams.

I am too hard-headed to benefit from most self-help books, but apparently I will listen to motivational pep talks from people who have been in space. And Hadfield does have a gift for presenting his career of extreme competence without coming across as a braggart. He’s easy to relate to and has a clear calling for sharing his passion for the space program and involving readers in the sheer “wwooooww” factor of a spacewalk.

If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, you’ll appreciate Hadfield’s wry descriptions of peeing for science. Astronauts on the ISS perform scientific experiments, but also they are scientific experiments—in how the human body reacts to long sojourns without gravity.

Check the WRL catalog for An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

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EmperorofAllMaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect from a book about a deadly disease, but it is also a majestically hopeful story because of its descriptions of the great strides in treatment. Practicing oncologist and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, covers the vast sweeping history of cancer and its treatment, while focusing on a huge range of real people who played a role in cancer’s study, research and burgeoning cures. He always comes back to real individuals with cancer whom he has treated or studied and how their own struggles with their own disease are impacted by improvements in treatment. This is definitely a book about a disease but Siddhartha Mukherjee comes across as a deeply humane man writing a deeply humane book.

The earliest mention of cancer that the book talks about is a quote from scroll written by the Ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep over 4000 thousand years ago.  The scroll gives a perfect description of breast cancer, but unfortunately for breast cancer sufferers from that time up until recently Imhotep concluded that there was nothing that could be done to help. Two centuries ago the standard treatment became a mastectomy without an anesthetic which is horrible to even contemplate. Today a range of options including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation mean a much higher survival rate.

Siddhartha Mukherjee points out that cancer is actually more than one disease and survival rates for some forms of the disease have improved rapidly, while others haven’t changed much. One joyful and astonishing story is the treatment of some common forms of childhood  leukemia which went from a 5-year survival rate of less than 10% in the 1960s to a 5-year survival rate of over 90% today.

The Emperor of All Maladies is very readable and extremely compelling. It won the Pulitzer Prize for non fiction in 2011. Unless you are an oncologist be prepared to learn a lot from this 500-page epic of human ingenuity in overcoming a horrible disease that has caused untold suffering. I learned some astonishing facts, for instance that a chemical similar to mustard gas, the World War I trench horror, is used in chemotherapy.

As you’d expect from a reliable scientific book, The Emperor of All Maladies includes extensive notes with references, a glossary and an index. It also has some black and white photographs and drawings of notable people, events and procedures in the fight against cancer. The Emperor of All Maladies is a good choice if you like Oliver Sacks for his deep compassion for the people he treats and his profound knowledge of his area of expertise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Emperor of All Maladies.

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JustBabies On the arresting cover of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil we see one chubby baby’s arm labelled “Good” and the other labelled “Evil”. Like many people, I instinctively feel that babies as young as those pictured can’t be described as “good” or “evil,” no matter how annoying their habits, because their moral sense isn’t developed. I certainly feel older people can have these labels, so is the moral sense of older children and adults learned (Nurture) or innate (Nature)? This debate may never be completely settled but developmental psychologist and author Paul Bloom argues that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us.”

Paul Bloom is a working scientist and has performed numerous experiments and published several scientific papers designed to tease out the moral behavior of those who can not yet talk. He broadly concludes that babies of around six months feel empathy and compassion, have a sense of fairness, and are capable of judging the actions of others. He is not doing this as a parlor trick (see, I can upset a baby by pretending to be hurt) but because “an appreciation of the moral natures of babies can ground a new perspective on the moral psychology of adults.” He adds that “moral deliberation is ubiquitous” and all societies create a formal and informal moral code. Many observers over millennia have noted that “people everywhere have a natural disapproval toward actions such as lying, breaking a promise, and murder.” He then argues that the circumstances under which the great human capacity for kindness can turn into a terrible human capacity for horror occur when people assign other people to categories, and then decide that some categories are deserving of compassion and some are not. As travel, migration and communication have developed, many people are learning compassion for an ever widening circle, and Bloom asserts that this is a wonderful thing.

Paul Bloom concludes his book with a chapter called “How to be Good,” in case you were wondering how to achieve this. Babies have a strong desire to “be good” and see others around them being good, but so do adults although we usually express it a more sophisticated way. He points out that many real life moral challenges have no clear cut right answer, but if we are aware that some of our moral reasoning is innate, but that most importantly, we can use our reason and judgement as well to expand and reveal our full humanity because “our enhanced morality is the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.”

Try Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil if you are interested in the intersection of science, social science, and everyday behavior, such as in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by the popular Malcolm Gladwell. It is also a good choice if you are fascinated with questions of justice, retribution and meaning in books like Man’s Search for Meaning. Or just read it for a well-written, very readable book written by a real scientist explaining his own life work.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

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Orphan BlackA young grifter unwittingly stumbles upon a dangerous conspiracy in the first season of BBC America’s edgy and mind-bending sci-fi series Orphan Black.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is trying to escape an abusive boyfriend and a criminal past. Following a train ride home, she finds herself alone on the platform with a distraught woman who sets her purse down before taking off a pair of stylish high heels. The woman turns and stares at Sarah, who is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the stranger. The woman then walks off the edge of the platform and into the path of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of the stranger’s suicide, Sarah makes a split-second decision that puts her in the center of a mystery. With emergency personnel focused on the stranger, Sarah sees an opportunity for a quick score, and she walks away with the woman’s purse. Sarah learns her doppelgänger’s name is Elizabeth (Beth) Childs. Beth shares an expensive house with her boyfriend. She also has a large sum of money in the bank. Sarah decides to use her resemblance to Beth to her advantage and assume Beth’s identity. Once she has emptied Beth’s bank account, she’ll use the money to start a new life with her daughter, Kira, and foster brother, Felix.

Sarah believes she will be able to pull off the scam and quietly slip out of town; however, Beth’s life is far more complicated than she originally thought. First, there are calls from a man named Art and texts from an unknown number. There is also the matter of a safety deposit box containing copies of the birth certificates and photographs of other women who bear a striking resemblance to both Sarah and Beth. As additional secrets from Beth’s life surface, Sarah learns that the women—Beth, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, and Katja Obinger (also Tatiana Maslany)—are all clones and she is a clone as well. This discovery is the gateway to a mystery involving a scientific movement called Neolution, led by the charismatic Dr. Aldous Leekie. Will the women unlock the secret of their connection to this group before they become the next victims of a killer who’s on a mission to eliminate the clones?

Orphan Black is a thoughtful and complex show that deftly balances questions of personal freedom and what it means to be an individual with a delightful streak of dark humor. The acting is first-rate. Tatiana Maslany succeeds at giving each clone her own distinct personality and unique set of characteristics. My favorite clone is Alison Hendrix, a conservative wife and mother whose sense of self is completely upended by the discovery she is a clone. The fine supporting cast includes Kevin Hanchard as Beth’s partner Detective Art Bell; Maria Doyle Kennedy as Sarah’s foster mother Mrs. S; Dylan Bruce as Beth’s boyfriend Paul Dierden; and Jordan Gavaris as Sarah’s foster brother Felix Dawkins. In a clever bit of casting, Dr. Aldous Leekie is played by Matt Frewer, who became famous in the mid-‘80s playing a character named Max Headroom.

Fast-paced and well-plotted, Orphan Black quickly builds momentum and maintains it throughout the season. Now is a good time to catch up with the show—or discover it—before the second season starts in April.

Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Black.

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SongsofInsectsThings have changed. Even crickets don’t chirp like they did in the old days. If you think the beat of the summer insects doesn’t sound like it used to, you could be right because the high-pitched songs of insects become inaudible to aging ears.

This is where The Songs of Insects comes in. It is a gorgeously illustrated visual guide to crickets, cicadas, katydids and grasshoppers, with each insect photographed on a natural surroundings and also on a white background, making them very easy to see and differentiate. It also promises to “shower you with auditory pleasures untold” and it lives up to this promise very well through the enclosed CD with the songs of almost eighty species of insect. The authors’ system of “electronics and sensitive microphones” that they used to record the insect songs means that we can listen to insect songs that we can no longer hear in the wild.

Before the guide portion of the book there are several pages of enlightening information about the classification of singing insects and the biology of insect songs. It includes some fascinating tidbits, for instance that some insects are left-handed vs. right-handed singers and their handedness (or wingedness?) is determined by species. Although we call them “songs,” insects have no lungs, so most rub wings or bumps or other modified body parts together to produce their chorus. Cicadas are different because their sound producing organs or “tymbals” resonate like drums, which explains how they can be so loud.

Each insect’s page includes sonograms or “sound pictures” for the technically minded. I was delighted to learn that “each species has its own distinct song, which is recognized by all individuals of the same species” and that pulse rates of songs vary by temperature and songs tend to speed up as the temperature rises so you can use the song to estimate temperature! But the best tidbit of all is discovering that there is an insect enchantingly called the Slightly Musical Conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorous).

The Songs of Insects is a must-read for nature lovers, especially those who like to use books to identify the wildlife around them, like Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, or more quirkily, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, by George W. Hudler. If you aren’t on the East Coast of North America you won’t necessarily be able to hear all these insects in the wild, but you can enjoy them on the CD. The authors’ ongoing project can be found at http://www.songsofinsects.com/

The Songs of Insects is also a wonderful book for photographers. The authors explain the equipment they used and how they photographed a living creature that isn’t interested in a modeling contract and may hop away at any moment (the answer is to use a custom made “whitebox.”)

Check the WRL catalog for The Songs of Insects.

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earthOh, get your mind out of a Hemingway novel.  There are more important things to be discussed–like earthmovers that outdo the largest mechanical monsters every hour of every day with no maintenance required.


Some people get creeped out by these denizens of the humus and loam that builds up underground, but to writer Amy Stewart it is plain that few human endeavors would be possible without the earthworm. They are undoubtedly responsible for much of the fertile land that produced crops abundant enough for people to settle into communities and build cities. They are responsible for the gradual settling that preserves so many archaeological sites. And they may be one of myriad ways we can solve our current problems with treating contaminated soils and other human wastes, including human waste.

What’s strange is that earthworms attract little or no serious scientific attention. At the time of Stewart’s writing, one of the few people involved in creating a taxonomy of earthworms supported himself with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a truck driver. Another wants to create a website where people can buy the naming rights to any of the unnamed worm species, much as people used to be able to name stars. The trouble is that, despite the few people making a career of oligochaetology (possibly because your in-laws can’t spell it), a dozen uncatalogued earthworm species can turn up in a single trip, with specimens left sitting in a lab waiting to be analyzed and named by the scientist. How can their impact be assessed if researchers can’t even put a name to the subject?

Yet no less a scientific luminary than Charles Darwin turned his fascination with earthworms into the last book of his career. After observing their habits for decades, even setting aside cataloguing his collection from the Beagle to study them, Darwin finally put those observations in print. He wrote of worms’ movement in the soil, of the castings they leave behind to enrich the dirt, even of the work they do to pull objects from the surface into their burrows. (They like triangular shapes best.) He credited them with intelligence and with a dignity that surprised a world that regarded them as pests.  (And, Stewart notes, they can be. When a well-meaning fisherman dumps his remaining bait worms into a different habitat, they can have an adverse effect on the environment.)

Stewart mingles the history and current studies with her own experiences as a vermicomposter. I can’t imagine anyone publishing a plain book on earthworm history, or earthworm studies, although books about raising earthworms are popular. The way Stewart turns it into a readable, thoughtful, and at times funny book shows how an odd little topic can change the way people view it.  Kind of like an earthworm changes the world.

Check the WRL catalog for The Earth Moved

It’s even available as an ebook and an audiobook.

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A book about molds doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but George W. Hudler manages to be fascinating with fungi and even introduces a little punning humor, calling one sub-chapter “The Wrath of Grapes.”

Hudler is the Professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell University where he teaches a class with the same name as the book.  His enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of his subject shine through.

The book starts with an introduction about the structure, functions, and dispersal of fungi, and then spends a lot of time talking about how fungi have changed human history.  “Mischievous” doesn’t really capture how destructive they have been!

A lot of the historical evidence is circumstantial because the testable food and spores are long gone, but Hudler makes some convincing cases for fungal culpability.  He says the Biblical Pharaohs’ years of famine were likely caused by fungally-induced crop failures because the Middle East used to be cooler and wetter it is than now, and Biblical witnesses describe  being “blighted by the east wind,” which brings rain. These are just the conditions that fungi like.

Unlike the Pharaohs’ famines, scientists know which pathogen caused the Irish Potato Famine, Phytophthora infestans.  The potato blight  caused by this tiny organism killed millions of people and caused millions more to emigrate.

Our food crops are still vulnerable to attack by fungi at any time. He mentions barberry as a host for wheat rust disease.  I suspected these plants were evil after I was vanquished by a ornamental barberry that left me with a painful and unreachable thorn under my skin for several weeks.

Hudler more controversially argues that witch hunts throughout history were caused by fungus-infested rye which produces several alkaloid substances called ergot. Ergotism causes symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, feelings of heat, gangrene leading to loss of limbs and spontaneous abortions.  Significantly for witch trials they are also known to cause seizures, hallucinations and psychosis.  The book says that witch trials in Europe were closely correlated to cooler and wetter springs (from tree ring studies) and cooler and wetter places (such as river valleys).  The Salem witch trials fit this pattern, as it was a cool time and the people most affected lived on damper, swampier land.

But, of course molds and fungi also have positive human uses, from fermenting beer and making bread rise, to medicines.  Alkaloids from ergots are used for several medicines and drugs, including a migraine drug and LSD.  In fact, the known perception-changing effects of these substances lead some people to believe that they were used by Ancient Greek mystics.  Perhaps the most important and well known medicinal use of fungi are the various species of Penicillium, which have forever changed our fear of bacterial infections.

After reading Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, I have gained a new appreciation of of the fruiting bodies, spores, fungi, and molds that I see all around as I walk my dog in the forest (or see lurking in the back of my fridge).  Our library has fungi cookbooks and guides but Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds is unique if you like science writing, especially if you enjoy being grossed out by real organisms.

Check the WRL catalog for Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds.

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“Facts change all the time.”


How is this possible? A fact is a fact is a fact. What Samuel Arbesman means is not that fundamental laws of nature will suddenly reverse and good-bye gravity, but that our understanding of the universe is imperfect and that scientific “knowledge” is constantly being revised as we develop new techniques and discover new things.

For example he tells the astonishing story that in 1912 biologists found forty-eight chromosomes in the human cell, and it was accepted as established fact. After that, some other scientists found only forty-six chromosomes, but they assumed that they had made a mistake. Finally by 1956 the new lower number was recognized, and it is so universally accepted these days that I didn’t know there had ever been any doubt about it.

From my time as a Science Liaison Librarian in a university library, I know that science is iterative — one small discovery builds on another — and unpredictable as to which ones may be useful in another discovery. As I told students, chemical scientists write 30-page papers about one chemical (which are generally unintelligible, except to other chemists), and any paper may one day have an unexpected medical or industrial purpose.

Samuel Arbesman doesn’t claim to know which facts will become obsolete and change (obviously he’d be omniscient in that case). What he does argue is that the rate of change of facts is perfectly predictable by scientific models, like the radioactive decay of atoms. You cannot predict which atom will decay, just that in a set number of years that half of them will be decayed, thus a “half life” of either atoms or facts.

Samuel Arbesman uses dozens of examples, ancient and modern from child bed fever to computer speeds to make his arguments, and includes gentle humor: “Many of us only view ‘technology’ as anything invented after we were born.”  I find his basic premise about the impermanence of facts very plausible although I don’t always agree with his details.

Try The Half-Life of Facts if you are a science fan, especially if you like books about the way genuine science can be twisted to promote unscientific ends, such as Proofiness, by Charles Seife.

Check the WRL catalog for The Half-Life of Facts.

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The Science of Good Cooking

Books are always the best gifts. Any bibliophile knows this, but for fancier volumes there is always the risk of gifting a  pricey doorstop. The Science of Good Cooking certainly qualifies as a doorstop at 486 pages and almost 11 by 9 inches. I decided to get it for my son’s sixteenth birthday to encourage his known interest in chemistry and a burgeoning interest in cooking. Happily, it has been a rewarding gift on many levels. It was worth every penny to come home one day to a scrumptious meal of fried chicken, creamed corn and salad that my son had cooked. And the book was an even better deal because, besides from my strong self-interest in getting my teenagers in the kitchen, I know I can always improve my own cooking skills.

I was paging through the book one evening looking for something to grab me, and I was instantly snaffled up by the section called “Cocoa Powder Delivers Big Flavor.” Since I am inclined to be smug about cooking from scratch I am embarrassed to admit that I have only ever made something approximating chocolate  mousse by the method of empty-powder-from-box-into-milk-and-whisk. So mousse it was! Whilst making the mousse, I discovered (or more accurately confirmed) that I am lazy. I knew that maximum volume in beaten egg whites requires a bowl completely free of oil. I only have one bowl for my stand mixer and I had just made it greasy with the previous ingredients, and making it clean for the egg whites hand involved washing a bowl, that although greasy, was safe to eat from. My first inclination was to put it in the dishwasher, but that would have taken too long, so the only answer was to use a dirty bowl and egg white volume be darned! The resulting mousse, although not at maximum volume, still tasted very good…

After my mousse adventure I still have plenty more to go. As I read in the section on eggs, subheading: “Starches at work – Quiche,” the proteins in raw egg whites and yolks are long chains of amino acids coiled up in balls (p 190). Who knew? When I was a vegetarian for 11 years, quiche was a significant part of my repertoire. Now it is greeted with a great deal less than enthusiasm when I present it to my unrepentantly carnivorous family. It did seem to get tougher and drier over the years, so I am looking forward to finding out the scientific secret to superb quiche.

I recommend this book for any cookbook fan. It has a variety of great recipes, although I found the organisation idiosyncratic. And it is a great book for sneaky people like me who want to feel noble that I am doing something “scientific” when I really just want to eat chocolate mousse.

Check the WRL catalog for The Science of Good Cooking.

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Kakapo rescue

Some book titles exaggerate to attract readers, and the subtitle of this book, “Saving The World’s Strangest Parrot,” sounds like hyperbole, but in the case of the kakapo, it is simple fact. The New Zealand Kakapo is the world’s only nocturnal parrot. It is also the heaviest parrot, often weighing eight pounds. Of course, a bird that heavy can’t fly, so it climbs trees using its claws and beak, only to spread its wings and drop to the leafy forest floor like a stone when it is time to get down. To attracts mates in the dense New Zealand forest the male kakapo digs himself a bowl and booms like a drum. And if that isn’t enough, they smell so strongly from a fungus that grows in their feathers that humans can easily pick up their musty, honey-like scent. Sounds like the world’s strangest parrot? It does to me!

Not only is the kakapo strange, but the combination of flightlessness and friendliness mean that it is extremely vulnerable to predation by carnivorous mammals that have been introduced to New Zealand, such as dogs, cats, weasels and stoats. Unwilling to allow the extinction of the bird that once thrived in millions all over New Zealand, the New Zealand government and private charities are scrambling to save it. Kakapo Rescue describes a thrilling story with the bird going from a population of millions in the 1800s to presumed extinction in the 1950s. Over sixty expeditions searched for kakapos in the 1970s, and they found eighteen birds, which was great news for a bird assumed to be extinct, but they all turned out to be male. Finally in 1977 scientists found a surviving population of two hundred on Stewart Island, to the far south of New Zealand. But kakapos breed slowly and they were still struggling, until  by 1995 there were only fifty-one kakapos left. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a remarkable breeding program on tiny Codfish Island, off the coast of Stewart Island. Up to fourteen people live in a hut year-round solely to help the birds. The happy news is that according to the Kakapo Recovery website there are now nearly 150 kakapo, although the number goes up and down a little as some kakapo die while some eggs hatch.

In our library, both copies of Kakapo Rescue are shelved in the children’s department. This book is definitely interesting and detailed enough to capture the attention of bird- and nature-loving adults, while being accessible to older children. Every page has dazzling photographs by renowned wildlife photographer Nic Bishop. I strongly recommend Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot for people enraptured by dramatic conservation stories and those fascinated by bizarre birds, such as penguins. It will also grab travel buffs who want to learn about the soggy and windswept beauty of southern New Zealand.

Check the WRL catalog for Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot.

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sibleySpring is winding down in the tidewater region, and for the last 35 or so years one the harbingers of the season for me has the arrival of migrant birds to the area over the course of the spring. After a winter diet of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, juncos, titmice and chickadees (all fine birds mind you), it is exciting to start to see some of the summer residents arriving or to see the more northerly birds passing though on their way to New England and Canada. The Williamsburg area has lots of places to see birds, many of which are listed in the Williamsburg Bird Club’s Hotspots list. The Bird Club has also been a strong supporter of the library, donating funds to purchase new titles for our bird watching collection.

WRL’s collection of birding materials has something for everyone from the beginner to the long-time birder. Books on calls, on identifying specific species, and on the history of birding can all be found, as well as titles on birding in Virginia and in Williamsburg.

One of the best titles for those interested in taking up bird watching is David Sibley’s Birding Basics. Here, Sibley walks the new birder through the things needed to get started—how to look at birds so that you start to recognize patterns, what sort of optical equipment is best for birding, how to make the best use of field guides, and where to go for more in-depth reading on species. The book is filled with Sibley’s illustrations (he is a superb artist) that illuminate his points and make clear identifying marks and patterns to look for. Armed with this text anyone will be a better birder, and if you want to get an idea of what all those birds around you are, Sibley’s Birding Basics should be your go-to book.

Check the WRL catalog for Sibley’s Birding Basics

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Robert M. Hazen’s exciting explanations of how the Earth and its geologic and biologic systems formed and changed had my head spinning with growing knowledge and dawning comprehension. About five billion years ago—several billion years after the Big Bang, which Hazen explains well enough for me to finally grasp, somewhat—an event such as a shock wave from an exploding star caused a cloud of gas and dust to collapse into a star system, our Solar System. “Like a twirling ice-skater, the big cloud rotated faster and faster as gravity pulled its wispy arms to the center. As it collapsed and spun faster, the cloud became denser and flattened into a disk with a growing central bulge—the nascent Sun.” Scientists can’t say for sure how the planets formed, but because all the planets more or less rotate in the same direction and are more or less on the same plane, Hazen explains, most scientists speculate that the planets formed from the same rotating gas and dust as the Sun, and were not objects hurtling through space captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull, as was once thought.

The Earth has gone through many drastic changes since forming. The names of the chapters in The Story of Earth illustrate this: Black Earth: The First Basalt Crust; Blue Earth, The Formation of the Oceans; Gray Earth: The First Granite Crust; Living Earth: The Origins of Life; Red Earth: Photosynthesis and the Great Oxidation Event; The “Boring” Billion: The Mineral Revolution (Surprise: these billion years were anything but boring!); White Earth: The Snowball-Hothouse Cycle; Green Earth: The Rise of the Terrestrial Biosphere. I’ve never really imagined our planet as anything other than a grey ball of rock slowly turning blue and green as life began. This book shows how that view is far from accurate.

The Moon, too, has changed over the billions of years. Did you know that it is moving away from the Earth by about 3.82 centimeters per year? Scientists know this because Apollo astronauts left mirrors on the surface of the moon in the 1960s and 70s, and scientists measure the distance very accurately by bouncing laser beams off them. If the moon is moving away from the earth at that rate, can you imagine how close the moon was to the earth 4.5 billion years ago? It would have looked gigantic. The surface of the Moon was quite different back then, too. According to Hazen, “The early Moon was a violent body of intense volcanism, quite unlike the static silvery-gray object we see now. Its surface would have appeared black, with glowing red magma-filled cracks and volcanic basins easily visible from Earth.” Hazen explains the current theory of how the Moon was formed by what he calls “The Big Thwack,” or the giant impact theory.

4.5 billion years is an unfathomably long time. In 283 pages, Hazen is able to clarify to someone like me, who never took many science classes, the current theories of how Earth and the Moon formed, how life began, how mineralogical forces influence life and how life in turn influences mineralogy, and many other fascinating phenomena. One of the more interesting sections was of the Great Oxidation Event, something I had heard about but had never understood. He writes about how he and his colleagues figured out that many of the minerals we see today—turquoise, azurite, malachite, and thousands of others—could never have occurred without the Great Oxidation Event, and thus how such minerals would never be found on a non-living astronomical body like the Moon or Mars.

If you have an interest in this planet on which we’re living, and you want to know more about how it got here, how it has changed throughout the estimated 4.5 billion years since it formed, and where it may be going, read this book. It’s fascinating.

Check the WRL catalog for The Story of Earth

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Penguins of the WorldThere is no denying it, penguins are cute! They are also intriguing animals. Despite not being able to fly, “the penguin seems to have a greater range of ways to move than any other bird. [They] paddle, porpoise and flipper through the water, rocket and surf to reach the shore, then waddle, run hop leap and toboggan over the land” (p 26).

The author, Wayne Lynch, is a Medical Doctor turned science writer and nature photographer. He describes himself as a “penguin addict” and his passion for his subject shows in this fascinating book.

Penguins of the World is detailed and scientific enough for an ornithologist reader, but is is also written in a conversational and engaging style about a fascinating, but little understood animal which everyone recognizes but few of us know many facts about.

For example, did you know that there are only seventeen species of penguin? This figure may change because some scientists think there are a few more species and some a few less because some lump several species together as one and some split one species into several. Also only seven of the seventeen species ever go near the Antarctic. They range from the Galapagos Islands, right on the equator, to deep inside the Antarctic Circle and are adapted to the greatest climate range of any group of birds.

The book is arranged in informative chapters, some with odd titles like “Sex and the Single Penguin.” They cover everything you might need to know about the biology and lifestyles of penguins. It is filled throughout with stunning photographs by the author, and you can be entertained and learn a lot without reading a word.

Penguins of the World is a great choice for bird lovers who want to find out more about this unusual bird. I also recommend it for people who love great nature writing.  And of course if you cried during March of the Penguins, this book is a must read to fill in the details about the majestic Emperor Penguins and all of their relatives.

Check the WRL catalog for Penguins of the World.

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MiraclePlanetI imagined it differently. I pictured a warm shallow pool under a friendly blue sky, overseen by a kindly shining sun and gently stirred by a breeze. And in the pool, my far distant slime-mold ancestors were busily evolving into my grandfather. Miracle Planet shows a past that is far more savage and chaotic than my imaginings.

Miracle Planet is a five-part documentary made by a joint Canadian and Japanese team. The first two parts, “The Violent Past” and “Snowball Earth” assert that in the far distant past the entire earth was frozen solid two miles deep all the way to the equator, probably twice. The friendly blue sky that I imagined was, at some points, actually red from the high concentration of methane and then dark from debris from massive volcanic eruptions. And a meteor hit the earth millions of years before the well-known one causing the dinosaur extinction and made the planet so hot that the rocks boiled and melted miles deep. The documentary explains the timing of these events, which were millions of years apart, but I find geologic time hard to keep track of, since the time spans are so unimaginably huge.

But the most amazing part of the documentary (and perhaps the most amazing thing ever) is that life persisted! Scientists used to think that the freezing and boiling catastrophes sterilized the earth and destroyed all life on earth. Then they thought life evolved again.  But now they think that bacteria could have survived, because they know bacteria survive miles deep in diamond mines in South Africa.

I learned many other things such as the greatest volcanic eruption ever in the history of the earth occurred in what is now Siberia and made ninety-five percent of the existing species extinct. Also that dinosaurs were very bird-like, in that they were better at oxygen exchange than the early mammals because they had air sacs. The series moves up in time to early humans.

I came across this series when I created a display on “The End of the World” and it will fascinate buffs of apocalyptic scenarios. Even if I can accept my personal mortality (and less readily the mortality of my loved ones), the extinction of our species is still horrible to contemplate, let alone the extinction of all life on earth.

Miracle Planet has wonderful images and graphics and I also recommend it for those interested in science. The library owns a lot of great science documentaries and I love them because, at their best, they bring an immediacy to a subject that a book can lack, because sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Check the WRL catalog for Miracle Planet.

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HallucinationsA new Oliver Sacks book is always an anticipated event, as the library’s hold list for this book shows.  His blend of scientific accuracy, accessible writing style, and  empathy for his subject shine through.  It also means that his 12 books are still in print even though the first one, Awakenings, was published almost 40 years ago.  Williamsburg Regional Library owns Awakenings and seven of his other books and they are still flying regularly off the library shelves.  My colleague, Barry, wrote about Musicophilia in 2009, but I think a new Oliver Sacks book is worthy of another post.

I often check out other books that purport to be about the workings of the brain, because I am fascinated by the idea that the squishy stuff in my head is doing things I’m not planning even though I feel like I am making decisions.  Sadly, I often don’t finish them because they read like the author is using neurology to push a point of view or they are so dry it sends me to sleep.  Each of us is using our brain to read  this, but what is actually happening in that ten pound lump on top of our shoulders?

Hallucinations aren’t a subject I had considered much before, but it seems that the blotches of deep color I see sometimes as I fall asleep are officially hallucinations.  I would have thought real hallucinations would be more exciting!

Hallucinations is a challenging book – not because it’s difficult to read – it’s definitely not (some medical vocabulary is clearly explained by Oliver Sacks). Rather, it is challenging because it stands assumptions on their heads.  People who hear voices are crazy, right?  This is assumed in popular culture, for instance in Harry Potter when Ron and Hermione tell Harry that hearing voices is not a good sign even for a wizard.  But in real life “most people who hear voices are not schizophrenic” and auditory hallucinations are far commoner than I thought.

Like all Oliver Sacks’ books this one is filled with little known facts such as every culture has “found and sought hallucinogenic drugs and used them, first and foremost  for sacramental purposes” and also filled with startling information like people usually find Charles Bonnet syndrome hallucinations “unthreatening” and sometimes enjoy and look forward to them.

This is science writing at its best as it is readable, but still scholarly. The book includes an index and long bibliography.  It has extensive footnotes, which are interesting, but sometimes I found them distracting as they took up almost half the page.  Oliver Sacks’ books are as fascinating as the best novel when, for a short while, the reader can live someone else’s life.  The reader can feel Sacks’ profound understanding of the humanity of each of his patients, however odd their conditions make them appear.

If you are an Oliver Sacks fan, then rush out to get this book (Williamsburg Regional Library users can use the link below to place a hold on it).  If you are new to Oliver Sacks, but like memoirs, or you like science writing or health writing,  try it and you may get hooked.  If you or a family member has been troubled by hallucinations Oliver Sacks in his warm, inclusive way, may make you feel less alone.

Check the WRL catalog for Hallucinations

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Did you know that rabies still kills 55,000 people worldwide every year?  And that there are plausible connections between rabies and the myths of werewolves, vampires, and zombies?

Everyone has heard of this disease.  And many of us take our dogs and cats regularly to the vet for their rabies shots.  Why do we bother?  Why are we so scared of rabies?

It could be the 100% fatality rate.

It could be that rabies is one of the few diseases that travels through the body through the nervous system, rather than the blood stream.

Rabies is a singularly frightening disease and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is a great way to learn about it its effects on human history.

Bill Wasik is a journalist who wrote the book with his veterinary wife, Monica Murphy.  The book goes over the basics of the disease, but as its subtitle,  A Cultural History suggests, it goes into depth about what rabies means to people throughout history.  The disease has been known since ancient times and ancient writers like Pliny the Elder described it with some accuracy, although their cures usually weren’t much help.

One reason that rabies is so horrifying is that it attacks the brain and changes a person’s personality in a way that a disease like pneumonia doesn’t.  A person with rabies is often affected psychologically,  including symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations.  Victims frequently become terrified of water, even though they want to drink, so rabies is known as hydrophobia.  Bill Wasik suggests (as others have done) that these changes are what led to myths of vampires and zombies as they are creatures that are human, but not human at the same time.

The book reveals many quirky facts about rabies.  For example, because the rabies virus travels slowly along the nervous system, once a person is  bitten by a rabid animal, the onset of symptoms depends on how far way the bite site is from their brain.  Therefore a person bitten on the face will get sick more quickly than someone bitten on the foot.

Although still a horrifying incurable disease, rabies does provide some hope in medical science.  The rabies virus is unusual in that it can get past the blood brain barrier, which usually prevents viruses and bacteria, but also medicines, from getting from our blood into our brains. This means that theoretically a modified version of the rabies virus could be used to get medicine into the brain.

Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus is  a fascinating, but sobering book.  It is not a medical text, but it is an excellent choice for people who enjoy medical and epidemiological history like The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson or Plague: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Slack.  I also recommend it for people who like science writing, or those who are fascinated with zombies and vampires and other creatures who are frighteninglyaltered humans.
Check the WRL catalog for Rabid: a Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

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“How human encroachment hurts wildlife has been… common knowledge for decades. This knowledge isn’t wrong but it is only half the story.”  page 269

My first view of my new North American home was as my plane descended to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.  I was struck by the verdant summer landscape – from above it looked like a forest – which was odd, because it was then a city of 750,000 people.  After reading Nature Wars by Jim Sterba I am not surprised by my puzzled reaction, because as he says, “Three out of four residents [in the Northeast of the United States] live in or near land under enough trees to be called forestland if they weren’t there.” page 52

How can this be true? Haven’t we and our ancestors been busily and irreversibly destroying nature for hundreds, if not thousands of years?  Jim Sterba argues that we have certainly changed nature, but not in the ways many of us assume. He reports that a huge regenerated forest stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Maine, and most of the book is about this area.  Modern people like trees, and we like to live among them, so as our houses sprawl further apart in suburbs and exurbs we plant trees in the gaps.

The deforestation of the Northeast was at its peak in the late 1890s.  It has taken 100 years for the forest to grow back.  We’ve been able to let it grow back because we don’t have our ancestors’ desperate need to use trees for fuel and building materials, and also because we don’t need to farm marginal East Coast land because so much of our food comes from the hugely productive Midwest.

Significantly, with the regenerating forest comes resurgent populations of some of the forest animals.  Jim Sterba devotes chapters to the burgeoning populations of beavers, deer, Canada geese, wild turkeys, black bears, and feral cats.  All of these, except feral cats, live naturally in this area. Their populations dropped after Europeans came to North America,  but they are doing very well under the way modern people manage the landscape.  So well, in fact that Jim Sterba notes that some estimates put the population of white tailed deer at the highest it has ever been.

It seems strange that there could be so many large wild animals living among so many people, but I thought of the deer I regularly see and also thought of the deer-car collision I saw in the highway lane next to me.  As the wild animal populations have grown and the human population has grown, conflicts are inevitable, accounting for the word War in the title.

When there is a direct conflict of one individual’s or species’ needs over another’s, then inevitably someone doesn’t get their needs met.  In the events described in Nature Wars it is not so clear whose needs should come first, and people can vehemently, sometimes violently, disagree.  Is it more important for deer to be able to run free or people to be able to successfully grow gardens?  This problem has even been addressed in our library collection:  Fifty Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants: The Prettiest Annuals, Perennials, Bulbs, and Shrubs That Deer Don’t Eat, by Ruth Rogers Clausen. Or what about when the conflict is between two animal species?  Do humans intervene to save the song birds at the expense of the feral cats or let things fall out as they will?  For those who say that we should just leave nature alone, Jim Sterba argues Americans “are actively managing the nature around them in ways they barely recognize or think about – with their gardens, lawns, landscapes, mulch bins, garbage cans, bird feeders, pets, cars, and species partisanship, to name a few examples.” page 293.  We must accept that we are stewards and caretakers of the land and the animals whether we particularly want to be or not.

In my native New Zealand the isolated islands have a very delicate and unique ecosystem.  Introduced cats and dogs wreck havoc on the native birds, so feral cats are generally, and not too controversially,  killed in native forests.  Jim Sterba points out that in America feral cats have partisans who sometimes resort to death threats of those they feel threaten the cats.  The partisans for and against the  “Trap, Neuter, Release” program for feral cats are so strident, that the American Veterinary Medical Association refuses to support it or say they don’t support it.

I found this book enlightening and kept saying to myself  “Really? That can’t be true!” but Jim Sterba talked to and quotes dozens of working scientists, park rangers, and other experts, and he documents it his research in the extensive notes.  Nature Wars will certainly interest people who read nature books, and those who like to garden, bird watch, feed stray cats, drive along deer-free highways or use goose poop-free parks, to name a few.  It also provides a unique perspective on the social history of the settlement of the United States.  And most importantly it opens up conversations on very contentious issues that aren’t going away.

Check the WRL catalog for Nature Wars

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