Automatons! Higher mathematics! World domination! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua contains everything inquiring minds could ask for. A history of the nascent development of computing, it contains a detailed and thoroughly researched account of the collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their creation of the Analytical Machine (now known as a computer). Not limited to just explanations of the mechanical and theoretic processes, Padua also delves into contextualizing the machine’s creation with profiles of the people, culture and time period that had an influence on its formation. Any dryness you might expect of such subject matter is diverted by speculation of what Sherlockian adventures could have happened if the groundbreaking machine actually managed to be produced in the Victorian era of its imagining.
Padua’s zeal for her subject is infectious and her research has yielded amusing vignettes of the characters who were involved in the creation of computation, including cameos by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria. Despite her frequent demurrals to expertise, she concisely breaks down the complex engineering of her subject (with diagrams!) so that it is understandable for those of us who aren’t engineers, mathematicians or wizards. Be warned: It is text heavy for a graphic novel, primarily because the number and density of footnotes rivals those of the late Terry Pratchett. Like The Great Pratchett, however, the footnotes contain amusing digressions whose levity make them worth the effort.
With infinite care, deep detail and vast meteorological knowledge, Adam Sobel recounts the events leading up to one of the most destructive storms in history in Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and Columbia University Professor, recounts the growth of the storm and the predictions leading up to the disaster which were relied upon by elected officials, civic leaders and the general public.
Studies have shown that there is an approximate four to one benefit to cost ratio of investing in preventive measures, yet we lack the imagination to foresee the potential for disasters such as Sandy. Historically, we experience a disaster and then plan for the next event. However, with global warming gradually making its effects known, we may not realize the disaster in time to take effective measures. With this scenario, Sobel argues, “buying insurance after the flood will not work.” Development of low-lying areas, a rising sea level and climbing global temperatures will produce great environmental challenges. This will require broad cooperation between local, state and federal agencies and the private sector. Through clear-headed science, Sobel argues that we cannot afford to politicize an issue of such profound international importance as climate change. Storm Surge is a highly thought-provoking, engrossing tale of nature at her most destructive. It is also a story of human nature, and how we react, or fail to react, to our environment and its demands.
Dr. Sobel received his PhD in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a tenured professor at Columbia University. He has won several major awards, including the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, the Meisinger Award from the American Meteorological Society, the AXA Award in climate and extreme weather and the Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union.
Mikita Brottman may be a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but she clearly has a greater passion in her life. In The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, Brottman shares not only her love for her French bulldog but how dogs have been a major sources of inspiration to people throughout history. Grisby, the titular dog, was the influence for Brottman’s book which explores many human-canine relationships, both fictional and real.
While each chapter is ostensibly about such pairings as Prince Albert and his dog Eos or Charles Dickens’ character Dora and her beloved dog Jip, Grisby does turn up throughout the narrative in asides and anecdotes. The stories run the gamut from heartwarming to heartbreaking as Brottman relates tales about the very peculiar bond that exists between people and their furry friends. Just be warned that some of the dogs did meet untimely and even grisly ends which are told in graphic detail.
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.