How did it happen? How did humans, in about 30 years, entirely kill off a bird species that once numbered in the millions, if not billions? In A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, researcher Joel Greenberg covers the incredibly fast decline and disappearance of this iconic bird. One of the best-known examples of the end of a species, Greenberg delves deep into the various theories and causes of its extinction.
The mass slaughter of these birds in the years 1850-1880 has been well-documented, and Greenberg describes in great detail the methods (nets, guns, traps, etc.) that were used to capture or kill them. Due to the pigeons’ tendency to flock in the thousands or more, they made for easy targets no matter what method used. While the pigeons were initially found in large numbers from the Eastern seaboard west to the Rockies, their last huge flocks were found mostly in the area of the Great Lakes. Greenberg posits that the pigeons could live only as members of these large flocks; without the protection and community that this provided the birds, they were unable to survive.
After the decades of the late 1800s, only a few were found here and there over their once large range. Finally, in 1914, the last of the Passenger Pigeons, Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo. Greenberg’s book is an elegy marking the centennial of her death and that of her entire species. The national conservation movement, spearheaded by Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and others, came too late to save the Passenger Pigeon, but changed the mentality of the limits of human encroachment on nature. Though even with the scholarship and understanding that Greenberg and others have provided, we are left asking ourselves: how did it happen?
Ever wonder what happens to your old cell phone when you e-cycle it? What about the everyday recycling that is put out on the curbs? Oddly enough, these items will likely make their way to China or other developing countries, where there are growing manufacturing bases and therefore large demands for recycled materials. In his first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, journalist Adam Minter expounds on the convoluted routes of recycling, with particular focus on the history of the American scrap metal trade. Although these topics may not seem palatable for reading material, Minter creates a fascinating and readable narrative about individuals who have made it their business to see worth in what others discard, and the processes which have been created to recycle materials.
Statistics in Junkyard Planet are mind-boggling. Companies in one town in China, for example, recycle approximately 20 million pounds of American Christmas tree lights annually. In 2007 alone, U.S.-based Huron Valley Steel recycled over one billion pounds of shredded car parts, material that 50 or 60 years ago would have ended up in a landfill. Further, Minter goes behind the scenes and introduces us to many individuals, here and overseas, who have made a living in the recycling and scrap trades. It’s a profession with job security and very little worker turnover, where those who have dedicated their lives to the business take great pride in the work they do.
For those truly concerned about the health of the planet, however, Minter encourages people to reduce the amount of products they buy. As he puts it: “Recycling isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for consumption,” as the business of recycling is profit-driven, not motivated by environmental concern. Minter has personal knowledge of this topic as he grew up in a family of multi-generational scrap dealers. Anyone interested in environmentalism or economics will find Junkyard Planet an intriguing read. The photographs alone are worth a look!
We don’t expect very much from babies. They are supposed to be cute and cuddly but almost everything else has to be done for them. They can’t walk, talk, eat without assistance or clean up after themselves. And when one does something ridiculous it’s almost natural to say, “Oh, they don’t know any better; they’re just a baby.” But what if, in some ways, they did know better? In his new book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale, would argue that they do.
Through his research at Yale and consulting the research of others, Bloom has found that even very small babies as young as three months have a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong, that they use to evaluate the people and the world around them. This sense, acquired at such a young age or perhaps even innate, can influence the moral development of a person through adulthood. But this nascent morality has its limits. Bloom describes how babies and young children are also less compassionate towards strangers and develop cultural biases that can lead to such negative behaviors as bigotry and indifference in the face of suffering.
Though his research is very new and his conclusions contain a fair bit of supposition, Bloom makes a very persuasive argument that our moral development and sense of justice is established at an astonishingly young age, and that it affects us throughout our lives. This is a great pick for those interested in evolutionary biology, psychology, childhood development or the study of ethics.
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is Andrew Solomon’s exploration of the infinitely complex relationship between parents and children. He investigates the nature of parenting children who are exceptional in a variety of ways. Solomon interviews families with children who are prodigies, deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic or are transgender, for example. He bookends these stories with his own experience at being both a son and father. There are common themes among parents whose children possess these unique qualities. The individual stories inspire every emotion—heartbreak, grief, anger and joy. Although very challenging, parents maintain their child’s “difference” is a gift. The families often gain incredible strength and resilience.
Solomon’s psychiatric and academic backgrounds add depth and context to the exploration of each “condition”. He examines big issues such as identity, culture and “nature vs. nurture.” He provides overall context, history, and the latest research. Thanks to his engaging storytelling skills, the information is readily accessible and truly fascinating.
Solomon is the perfect author for such a book. His previous work, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, was the winner of fourteen different book awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT Affairs at Yale’s University Department of Psychiatry. He writes with clarity and warmth about extremely complex issues. This book is highly recommended to regular readers of nonfiction, parents, teachers, and anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to parent a child.
Do you find it difficult to remember how to solve a differential equation? Do probabilities and statistics drive you up the wall? Is your six year-old’s math homework giving you fits? If so, you may enjoy The Joy of X: a Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz, a sophisticated and lighthearted refresher of some of the most basic and some of the most cutting edge mathematical concepts to ever grace our minds (or our bookshelf).
Strogatz starts with the easy stuff—addition, subtraction, the number line—and progressively moves on to more abstract and advanced subjects, like calculus, group theory, and analytics. Using diagrams, literary allusions, and Sesame Street, Strogatz draws you into each topic and before you know it the rather short chapter is over. Presto! You’ve learned something. While this is by no means a comprehensive picture of mathematics, Strogatz simultaneously enlightens and entertains with each successively more challenging chapter. Like a magician willing to share a few choice trade secrets, Strogatz invites us to peek behind the curtain and uncover the mysteries of long forgotten concepts, such as quadratic equations, infinity, and the elusive prime numbers.
The chapters, many of which have been adapted from Strogatz’s New York Times column "The Elements of Math", are brief, accessible, and threaded with his enthusiasm for the topic at hand. This is a fascinating, quick, and approachable read for anyone who would like a math reboot, including parents, the curious, and those interested in discovering what sine waves have to do with Romeo and Juliet’s love life.
Two intriguing new books tackle science, inventions, and diagrams, and are perfect for armchair scientists looking to learn a little more about those things that made the world what it is today. 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod by Scott Christianson takes on the world of diagrams and explores their value to society. Some significant diagrams stand on their own, such as the Rosetta Stone, but many are actual drawings or plans of something tangible, like the cotton gin. Each double-page spread of this interesting and quick read shares a different diagram that impacted the world profoundly. Christanson arranges the diagrams chronologically starting with the Chavet Cave Drawings and ending with the iPod. All the diagrams in between are clearly illustrated and accompanied by text containing information about the development and significance of that diagram. Readers will be instantly drawn in by these diagrams that transformed the shape of the world and impacted not only science, but culture and history as well.
Mad Science: Einstein’s Fridge, Dewar’s Flask, Mach’s Speed, and 362 Other Inventions That Made Our World, edited by Randy Alfred, offers a day-by-day calendar of science and technology tidbits from Wired Magazine’s popular This Day in Tech blog. Entries from forty contributors serve to highlight the each episode, discussing its history and value and sharing other notable events from the same day. From the Gregorian calendar, the breathalyzer, and the ballpoint pen, to the first coin operated café (the Horn & Hardart Automat in Philadelphia), the inventions are intriguing, entertaining, and momentous. Equal opportunity is afforded to all scientific fields, so there really is something for everyone, even those who absolutely dreaded high school science.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently Fukushima have all made names for themselves in the history books, but lesser known is Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado. In Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen draws on her own experiences living in one of the neighborhoods close to the plant and later working there herself. The result is part family memoir and part historical account of Rocky Flats, which was quickly built after World War II. At first, Rocky Flats was seen as a boon to the community, bringing a myriad of jobs and stability to the region. Later, it became known as one of the most contaminated places in the U.S., with high rates of illnesses amongst workers and environmental threats to the surrounding neighborhoods. During its years of operation, several major accidents occurred, including a fire in 1969 that could have turned into a disaster on par with Chernobyl if not for a series of fortuitous actions on the part of plant workers. Activists and residents became increasingly vocal about problems, yet it wasn’t until the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Environmental Protection Agency conducted a joint raid of the plant in 1989 that truths finally came to light.
Iversen does an excellent job weaving together the stories of Rocky Flats and her own family with the common thread of secrecy: much like government and plant officials downplayed gross negligence and destructive environmental practices, her parents hid problems in their own home, including alcoholism and financial hardships. She also skillfully charts both her family’s history and Rocky Flat’s legacy to bittersweet conclusions, posing a question still being contemplated today: Are we living under the protection of the bomb, or under its shadow? Readers who enjoy narrative science books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, disfunctional family memoirs like The Glass Castle, or environmental justice accounts like A Civil Action will all find reason to be intrigued with this book.
Good things come in small packages this time of year, as this delightful trio of recently published stocking stuffer-sized books demonstrates. From pondering the idiosyncrasies of domestic life with man's best friend (dog or cat) to a quirky collection of curious tidbits about our world, here are some lighthearted, quick reads to enjoy or give.
Feline lovers will cheer for Toby Jug, the enterprising black and white kitten in Denis O'Connor's Paw Prints in the Moonlight: the Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cat. Set in rural Northumberland, O'Connor rescues the badly injured kitten one snowy night and brings it back to his 18th century cottage, where he keeps the kitten in a large cotton ball-cushioned pitcher. The kindhearted nature lover and his Maine Coon form an inseparable bond through many of Toby Jug's escapades. Lovely descriptions of the English countryside and delicate color illustrations enrich this poignant and charming tale for young and old.
Unfortunately, it’s not all domestic bliss for Richard Cohen when the family pet gets in the way. His new book, I Want to Kill the Dog, chronicles in jest the master-versus-canine tug of war. The author is married to television journalist Meredith Vieira, definitely the animal lover of this long married couple. Jasper is the “dog of many flavors," whose many annoying habits (ear splitting bark, for one) threaten marital harmony. Pet peeves aside, Cohen’s story belies what is really important: marriage and family come with good and bad and even the dog.
A potpourri of trivia awaits readers of Alex Palmer's Weird-o-pedia: the Ultimate Book of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts about (Supposedly) Ordinary Things. For instance, did you know that mosquitoes prefer people with Type O blood, or that humming is good for your sinuses? In 12 humorous chapters, each containing alphabetized entries, Palmer focuses on food and drink, friends and family, work, play, and so forth. A useful list of sources is also included. Parents beware, though; some mature topics are presented.
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen is a fascinating look into the world of infectious diseases, specifically those that travel from animals to humans, otherwise known as zoonosis or spillover. Humankind is all too familiar with zoonoses in the form of influenza, Ebola, SARS and AIDS. In order to get a sense of the scope of interspecies diseases, keep in mind that about 60% of all infectious disease cross between animals and humans. According to Quammen’s research, zoonosis has killed 30 million people since 1981. To investigate spillover viruses, he travels all over the world with virus hunters. He describes multiple mysterious outbreaks of disease, coming from a wide range of animals such as bats, gorillas and pigs. Quammen believes the next major pandemic will come from a nonhuman animal virus that will infect and spread into the human population.
David Quammen is a terrific science writer and he knows how to tell a good story. He is excited about his subject and takes a warm, personal approach with his readers. He makes this very complicated and frightening subject accessible and easy to understand. Spillover is thoroughly researched, includes an extensive bibliography and is chock-full of fascinating, engaging material. Although Quammen takes issue with Richard Preston’s Hot Zone, readers who enjoyed Hot Zone will love Spillover.
Our genes can be likened to a story, and the gray, sticky paste of DNA is the language in which the story is written, according to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. Kean relates the history and function of DNA and genes and their effect on collective and individual human development.
Watson, Crick, and Mendel are familiar names linked to DNA and gene theory but few people have heard of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his assistant, ladies’ man Calvin Bridges, or Catholic Sister Miriam Michael Stimson. Kean fleshes out years of tedious research undertaken by lesser-known scientists that paved the way for the award-winning discoveries. RNA, DNA palindromes, Y chromosomes, and mitochondria—all hard science terms that could prove overwhelming—are balanced by Kean with humor and relatable anecdotes. DNA injury and resiliency is illustrated by the case of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a man unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bomb detonation in Hiroshima, who then travelled to Nagasaki in time to be blasted again.
The Violinist’s Thumb refers to virtuoso Niccolo Paganini, whose musical gifts were, in part, due to a genetic error inhibiting his body’s ability to produce collagen; his disease allowed him to stretch his hands to perform amazing violin feats. Unfortunately it also contributed to his poor health and early demise. Kean explains how cat hoarding behavior can be linked to careless litter box cleaning, and cautions the reader to avoid eating a polar bear’s liver should you find yourself stranded at the North Pole. The book ends by raising thorny questions about cloning and the implications of analyzing a single person’s genome. Readers who enjoy popular science writing, such as Mary Roach’s Stiff, will find a winner in The Violinist’s Thumb.