Most anyone with a passing interest in space exploration was wowed by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while he was commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012 and 2013. Hadfield drew a large following, adeptly using social media to reinvigorate awareness of astronomy and the importance of understanding our place in the larger universe. Now back to earth and an adjunct professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo, his latest book is full of mesmerizing photos from space titled You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.
Hadfield explains in the introduction that the ISS fully orbits the Earth in 92 minutes, essentially 16 times a day. While he was mostly tasked with scientific responsibilities, over time he was able to take about 45,000 photographs of the wonders down below. While he was unable to capture every shot he desired, as time went on he learned to better compose his images so they became more obviously the work of a photographer rather than mere satellite images. And as he moves from continent to continent in organizing the photos, the incredible topography of our planet comes into focus.
To make the photos come to life, the author/photographer sprinkles humor and his obvious sense of wonder and joy in the captions. Small icons included with some images hint at what Hadfield was seeing in the photo, such as how a dental x-ray is mimicked in the unusual features of a Western Australian coastline. A sense of awe at the size of our planet and the diversity of the Earth’s environment is felt quickly while poring over the glossy pages of this fast read. And those who want more of the same can check out this BCPL interview with local astronaut Reid Wiseman or follow his tweets and posts from the ISS.
Award-winning photographer Traer Scott brings nocturnal wildlife to vivid life in Nocturne: Creatures of the Night, her fascinating book of animal portraiture. A detailed introduction explains the processes that Scott went through to compose and best feature the animals, including how her husband constructed black foam core boxes to provide fully black backgrounds for the smaller creatures. She also describes in detail the experiences of corralling a little brown bat on to its “stage”; the short, vivid life of a luna moth and how she felt obligated to photograph and release it humanely; and the first defense porcupines use when feeling threatened – a pungent odor she found herself covered in when going for the perfect shot leaving her barely able to breathe.
The bulk of the lovely book, of course, is the stunning photographs themselves. Each portrait of the featured beings comes with a short explanation of some of the animal’s more captivating nocturnal behaviors. The author also conveys that the habitats of too many of the animals presented are being destroyed as humans encroach on their environment. From the well-known, such as species of owls, bats and raccoons, to the various felines, snakes and amphibians that stalk the darkness, Scott’s photographic subjects glow with life. The fur, scales and feathers of the studies catch the light against the black, becoming brilliant and almost tangible. An easy-to-hold size makes Nocturne a beautiful package to pore over with amazement at the photographs and the animals contained within.
Early on the morning of September 22, 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw’s vehicle went left of center, striking another car. The occupants of that car, Jim Furfaro and Keith O’Dell, were killed on impact in the resulting accident. When questioned by police on the scene, Reggie told them that he thought he had hydroplaned. Upon further investigation, police found that Reggie had been texting at the time of the accident. In fact, he had sent and received 11 text messages in the moments leading up to the crash and was likely texting at the moment of impact. Matt Richtel’s new book A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention begins with the story of this tragic accident and examines how the immense increase of technology in recent years has impacted our ability to process information and focus.
It’s probably not at all surprising that we are more distracted today than ever before. The rapid growth of technology has exponentially increased the amount of information our brains process every day. In fact, a study showed that people consumed three times the amount of information in 2008 as they did in 1960. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the dangers of distracted driving, examines the effects that technology has on our ability to focus. What he finds is both timely and fascinating. A Deadly Wandering revolves around the accident and resulting legal case, but that’s not the whole story. Richtel also includes data that neuroscientists like Dr. Adam Gazzaley have found relating to how today’s technology has impacted our cognitive abilities.
This is a compelling work of narrative nonfiction, written by an author who clearly knows how to tell a story. Richtel humanizes the issue while sharing fascinating scientific research into one of the most important issues today. This story is guaranteed to capture your attention.
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.