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Archive for the ‘Science writing’ Category

Blizzard“No-one knew THEN that this was the day which was to be remembered when all the days of 70 years would be forgotten.”

If you’ve spent any time in the last few weeks watching the Weather Channel, you’re accustomed to the long lead-in we have to any winter storm. Plenty of time to gas up the generator, run to the grocery store for more milk, or double- and triple-check the school closings. This riveting and often heartbreaking look at a 19th-century blizzard reminds us that once, the only warning of a deadly cold front was the wall of fast-approaching clouds and a plummeting thermometer.

In January 1888, an unprecedented winter storm swept across Nebraska, the Dakotas, and southern Minnesota, freezing cattle in their tracks, freezing farmers and their children where they fell, or sometimes even where they stood. (Yes, Jim Cantore, there was also “thunder snow.”) It became known as the “Schoolchildren’s Blizzard” because it struck on a clear, fine day when many youngsters were at school, and it was their attempts to reach the safety of home that ended in so many tragedies. Laskin’s history draws on memoirs and oral histories from pioneers who lived through the blizzard, and he notes that even the most taciturn, uncomplaining immigrants wrote about this storm as being unlike anything they had lived through before.

Just like any modern weather event, there’s a lot of talking before the weather actually hits. Laskin spends the first half of the book describing the lives of the Swiss, German, and Norwegian immigrants who came to the great prairies in search of land and freedom. He surveys the 19th-century weather service, run by officers in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. The scandal-ridden weather service was surprisingly entertaining: it depended on staff like the fellow who took all of his weather observations at the local pawn shop, where he had hocked his barometers to pay off a poker debt. Laskin is actually quite poetic in describing the atmospheric dance of high and low pressure areas that builds to a winter storm. Then, finally, the blizzard itself arrives: blowing in at 45 mph, temperatures and visibility plummeting. Across the prairies, students and schoolteachers take stock of the situation and decide whether to shelter in place or strike out for the warmth of nearby homesteads. And you, the reader, want to warn them, just like we warn characters in horror movies not to head to the basement… don’t leave the schoolhouse.

The narrative follows several individuals and groups who walked into the storm and were blinded and disoriented by the wind’s intensity. They were assaulted not by the “lacy star-patterned crystals” of Christmas-card snow, but a fine, choking, blinding dust of nearly microscopic ice crystals. Disoriented, travelers wandered from their paths. The lucky ones found shelter in haystacks. Others died within sight of their destinations—if only they had been able to see. Hundreds died that night, although some survived, like schoolteacher Minnie Freeman, “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid,” who roped her charges together on their walk to safety, or so goes the song. In telling these stories, Laskin explains the physiology of hypothermia and frostbite and why some survived a night of exposure only to drop from cardiac failure as soon as they stood up the next day.

If you enjoy tales of survival and disaster like Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, The Children’s Blizzard is a sad but fascinating winter read.

Check the WRL catalog for The Children’s Blizzard

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MegaDisasters

If an asteroid hit the earth it would be bad news for all of us; that much is obvious. But what exactly would happen? Mega Disasters features ten episodes describing unimaginable catastrophes such as an F5 tornado hitting Chicago, a major eruption of Mt. Rainier onto Seattle or a huge earthquake hitting Los Angeles. It uses evidence from past cataclysms and tells the story with real disaster film footage. Expect lots of experts predicting doom and tons of (slightly cheesy) computer graphics.

Sometimes I feel like being completely awed by nature. This week I have talked about some of the smallest things (Molecules), some of the Oldest Living Things, and some of the cutest birds (Penguins and Chickens). But sometimes to fully appreciate these lovely things I have to imagine the most catastrophic. Many of this week’s science books are much more useful and appealing because they are visual. To get the full effect of a volcanic eruption (and not actually stand on an active geologic zone and risk pyroclastic flows and lava), I don’t think you can beat sound and action. Boom! Crash! Sizzle! Whoosh! Grab your popcorn, it’s time for a disaster movie!

Some of these mega disasters have happened before, such as the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago, or a Yellowstone eruption that buried the entire Midwest in feet of ash, but these happened long before humans or human civilization were around. The effects on us today would be enormous and perhaps not predictable, but in true History Channel style, Mega Disasters tries to predict. It shows the familiar high-rise buildings of Chicago and then shows computer-animated effects of wrenching winds with flying glass and debris. The creators of the series based their predictions on current expertise and up-to-date knowledge. They interviewed many geologists, meteorologists, astronomers and other scientists. Most of the scientists appear to be unflappable people, so when they dryly state things like, “This entire area would be devastated with nothing left alive,” you know it’s time to sit up and take notice.

My favorite episode is Yellowstone Eruption, because I am spellbound by supervolcanoes that could potentially kill most life on earth, as ably described in the teen novel Ashfall by Mike Mullin. Other good book tie-ins include nonfiction on the worldwide effects of a much smaller eruption, like Tambora, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

Mega Disasters will also interest viewers who like fictional disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. And if you think this is a silly topic and you are ever feeling too complacent, just remember this quote attributed to Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

Check the WRL catalog for Mega Disasters.

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WhyDidtheChicken

The title of this book poses an interesting question: why do chickens occur all over the world, and have for a long time? The short answer is that people took them around the globe because they are useful and noble birds.

Penguins (which I blogged about yesterday) are relatively rare birds and are considered cute, while chickens are so ubiquitous as to be thought boring. Andrew Lawler has done a great job of convincing me that chickens are not in the least bit boring, and hopefully the photo below of Henny Penny and Co. (wondering if my iPad is edible) will convince you that they are cute. Readable, surprising and captivating, this book will make you want to immerse yourself to find out more about this fascinating bird of contradictions.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is dense with facts, including many surprising ones such as that there are more chickens in the world than cats, dogs and rats put together, in fact, so many chickens that they outnumber people. Andrew Lawler argues that chickens are far more useful and important to human history than they are generally given credit for. They have been significant for religions from Zoroastrianism to Christianity for thousands of years and, because of the rooster’s habit of crowing just before dawn, they have frequently been seen as symbols of light and resurrection. As small animals that will eat scraps, they have always been economically important to poor or marginalized populations such as American slaves. They are important to medicine and scientific research in areas from growing vaccines to chick embryo development.

Chicken1

The chicken’s own history is somewhat murky. They are almost certainly descended from Asian Jungle Fowl (probably Red), but whether it was once or multiple times, and exactly where, is still controversial. We know why the chicken crossed the world, but how is not as clear, because chickens are small animals with tiny, easily eaten, scattered or rotted bones. Archaeological evidence of chickens is scarce, but it does suggest that Polynesians took chickens on their remarkable Pacific voyages, and that Tandoori Chicken recipes may have been invented in Indus Valley civilizations around 5000 years ago!  For local history buffs, in 1752 the College of William and Mary banned their students from attending cockfights, but that didn’t stop George Washington attending one in nearby Yorktown!

One thing I found missing from this book was illustrations. When the author talked about the Red Jungle Fowl or Queen Victoria’s many exotic breeds, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I used a copy of Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius with its great illustrations.

This book will appeal to readers who are interested in the intersection between humans and animals such as  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, by Hal Herzog, or the effects of animals on human history like Spillover, by David Quammen.

Check the WRL catalog for Why Did the Chicken Cross the World.

WyandotteChicken

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PenguinsAs the title says, Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is a guide book, but here in Williamsburg we are very unlikely to see a penguin landing on our bird feeder and pushing off the chickadees, so today’s book isn’t needed for immediate avian I.D. but is more for browsing, learning about these fascinating birds, and enjoying the dazzling photographs. Editors and publishers like to use superlatives to sell their books, but even without exaggeration, The Ultimate Guide lives up to its Ultimate hype!

Penguins are remarkable birds that also happen to be very cute. Author Tui De Roy grew up in the Galapagos Islands and has a long acquaintance with penguins and says they have an “exuberant gusto.” The book is arranged in three main sections headed by the three main authors who between them clocked up fifteen years of study and travel in the book’s creation. The first section, by Tui De Roy, goes over penguins’ general biology and occurrence; the second section, introduced by Mark Jones, includes double-page spreads by seventeen separate authors who are scientists, researchers and experts in their fields, with up-to-the-minute information such as “Beyond Prying Eyes: Tracking Penguins at Sea” by scientist Rory P. Wilson.

The last section, “Species Natural History,” is what you would expect from a guide book. It goes through the different species with common names, scientific names, physical appearance, distribution, breeding, conservation status, and so on. This section includes smaller close-up photos of individual and small groups of penguins to make positive identification. These contrast with many of the earlier photos that are often breathtaking landscapes with penguins.

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide has everything you need to know about penguins and plenty you didn’t realize you needed to know. If you consider yourself an amateur (or professional!) ornithologist, read it alongside Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley. Near Williamsburg Regional Library you are not going to see penguins, but you can always dream…

For travel buffs the book takes you to some out-of-the way locales that time seems to have forgotten, such as Subantarctic Campbell Island, in the empty ocean south of New Zealand. It brings home to me how lucky I am to have been hiking in New Zealand’s mossy and ferny Fiordland, a place about which Tui De Roy says; “there are few places on earth that feel more primeval and mysterious… Based on fossil evidence, this forest has changed little from the time it was still a part of the supercontinent Gondwana 80 million years ago and dinosaurs roamed in its glades.”

Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is worth reading even if you have read Penguins of the World by Wayne Lynch from 2007, as Penguins: The Ultimate Guide is larger, more in-depth, and more up-to-date.

Visual enough for children to enjoy perusing, break it out for fans of Happy Feet or the murderous penguins of Madagascar. For an overload of nonfiction cuteness, pair it with March of the Penguinsand I challenge you to view either without going “Awwww….”

Check the WRL catalog for Penguins: The Ultimate Guide.

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Molecules

Everything is made of something and on a scale that ordinary people (by ordinary people I mean me) can understand everything is made of elements and molecules. Author Theodore Gray has followed the winning formula (pun intended, sorry) of his 2009 book The Elements and has created another visually stunning book that informs, enlightens and fascinates.

There is no simple way to organize all possible molecular combinations, so Molecules is organised into chapters of how people use or perceive molecules, not necessarily how they are chemically related. So there are chapters on how things smell, on painkillers, and on molecules caught up in politics. He covers everyday substances (soap, nylon), controversial substances (mercury in vaccines), and things made of very odd substances. In Gray’s signature quirky style we find a section on “Keratin Extruded by Warm, Fuzzy Animals.” As you’d expect, this includes wool, mohair and feathers, but also includes a pair of socks that were made out of the hair of a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever! My dog is part husky, so she frequently sheds the equivalent of a small chihuahua per day, so there must be something I can do with all that hair….

Visually stunning is not an exaggeration for this book, and artistically inclined people can enjoy Molecules for the bright, active photographs and chemical structure diagrams that leap off the page from the black background. Artists will also be fascinated to learn about the origins and chemical analyses of historical pigments like burnt sienna, turquoise, and ultramarine. This is one of the occasions when Theodore Gray goes on flights of poesy not often seen in a chemistry book, such as “sienna, which has been the color of the Earth for as long as there has been an Earth and will stay that way until there is no longer an eye to see it nor a soul to hear its name.”

Molecules should be of interest to everyone, because we are all surrounded by these chemicals every day, but it is a must-read for science fans. It is attractive enough for coffee-table browsing and informative enough for supplementary reading in classrooms. It is the next logical step after Theodore Gray’s 2009 The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe. Pair both books with Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World, by Mark Miodownik, which is more narrative non-fiction about chemical properties while Molecules is more visual with basic facts.

Check the WRL catalog for Molecules.

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TheOldestLivingThings

Several months ago a group of us here at Williamsburg Regional Library presented The Top Five of Five for Non Fiction at the Virginia Library Association Conference. I was assigned science books, and one of the trends I reported on was “Guide Books Plus.” Over the next three days I will be reporting on some science Guide Books that are Plus, Plus, Plus! I think they expand the definition of guide book and that they are superbly readable, informative and visually stunning books. The first one is the loveliest book I have seen for a long time with a quirky and fascinating angle on nature: The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Rachel Sussman spent a decade travelling around the world finding, researching and photographing these enchanting, odd, and sometimes poignant organisms. Everything in the book is over 2000 years old and they go up to tens of thousands of years old. Animals, apart from primitive ones like sponges, simply don’t live that long, so most of the photographs are of plants, but there are also fungi, lichens and coral. Sadly, as the author says, “being old is not the same as being immortal,” so some of the organisms, like Florida’s Senator Cypress tree, are listed as “Deceased.”

Some of these organisms have become so old by using unusual survival techniques, or in everyday language by being very strange, for example the underground forest of southern Africa. The landscape is so dry and devastating fires so common that most of this plant grows underground. The photograph shows reddish desert dirt with an unassuming low-spreading plant with olive green oval leaves—just your average weed, except that the part showing is just the crown peeping through. If a fire rips through, it is only like having your eyebrows singed off and the tree will survive.

This is a large format book (27 x 30 cm according to our catalog) that is worthy to grace any coffee table. The exquisite photographs of varied landscapes from the fjords of Greenland to the rain forest of Eastern Australia to African deserts are dazzling enough to attract the attention of an art photographer, while the text about the organisms is personal and engaging. Rachel Sussman often describes how she heard of some of the more obscure organisms, how she traveled and what adventures she had in all corners of the world. About 3000-year-old Chilean desert plants she says: “Every once in a while you see something so ludicrously beautiful that all you can do is laugh.” Armchair travelers will thrill at seeing some little-visited parts of the world.

This is a great book for readers who like unusual science books with beautiful photographs like The Snowflake, by Kenneth Libbrecht  or quirky guidebooks like The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. And read it if you find yourself ruminating on the brevity of our allotted three-score and ten.

Check the WRL catalog for The Oldest Living Things in the World.

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Shocked“Witty” and “entertaining” are not words I would expect to use to describe a book mainly about resuscitation, but Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead is definitely both. Author David Casarett manages to be droll even about death: “I’m watching his respirations (nil), heart rate (zero), blood pressure (zip), and EKG tracing (flat). It’s a textbook case of someone who is undeniably and incontrovertibly deceased.”

Casarett is a medical doctor who explored historical resuscitation techniques (good and bad) and interviewed doctors, researchers, and cryogenics enthusiasts among others to bring us up to date on modern research and techniques. Laugh-aloud moments include when he tries an old resuscitation technique of lying face down on a trotting horse and nearly suffocates himself.

The book tells stories about many individual people who have been brought back for a second chance at life after being resuscitated, such as “The Ice Woman” who was submerged under ice for eighty minutes in Norway but survived. For those interested in the idea of never dying there is a section on cryogenics. Casarett’s verdict is mostly negative, because the problem with freezing a living thing is that ice damages the cells. Some animals, such as wood frogs, can manage to survive a type of freezing but “science has yet to adequately preserve anything much bigger than an acorn.”

The book is at times hilarious even as it imparts solid scientific information about things like the electrical rhythms of a beating heart. It also raises important philosophical, ethical, and even religious questions about dying and end-of-life care. Casarett concludes that resuscitation techniques have changed all of medical practice because: “The most exciting thing about this safety net is that most of us have been affected by it. If you’ve undergone any procedure as an outpatient, for instance, that procedure was possible because of advances in life-saving technology. Procedures like wisdom tooth extractions or endoscopy or even hernia repairs that used to be conducted in the operating room can now be conducted in an outpatient surgical suite.”

Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead will be a hit with readers who enjoy quirky science books like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, or What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe.

Check the WRL catalog for Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead

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