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review 2017-07-19 11:27
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

The Lost Hero of Science is not hyperbole.  It's one of the great tragedies of history that this man's name is no longer on the tip of every man, woman and child's tongue (at least in the English speaking world).

 

I don't know where to begin, but to put it as concisely as possible, read any headline about environmental science today and Humboldt called it almost 200 years ago.  Deforestation: check.  Desertification: check. The long term devastation of monoculture: check.  Climate change: check.  At the more extreme ends, he was calling for the creation of the Panama canal decades before it was a glint in America's eye and he insisted that even rocks contain life (they do - look it up).

 

Humboldt was acerbic, impatient, and had a level of energy few can imagine without pharmaceutical assistance.  He devoted his life in every way to science and nature, eschewing most personal relationships in favour of relentless study, but he was also generous with his knowledge and money - much to the betterment of the world and the detriment of his finances.  He was in almost every way a true hero, as the title claims, and unarguably a role-model for more than just fellow scientists.  Without Humboldt we very likely would not have Darwin (Darwin himself said without Humboldt, he would not have found his calling on the Beagle).  Without Humboldt we wouldn't have those lines on weather maps, either (isotherms/isobars).

 

In short, his life was incredible and Wulf does a better than creditable job illustrating not only his adventures and indefatigable levels of energy, but his impact on the world; not just scientists, but artists, authors, poets and politicians.  She writes a very readable narrative and communicates what must have been an enormous amount of information in a way that remains coherent throughout.  She remains objective but is never dry or academic.  My half-star demerit is only because some of the chapters devoted to others I found less interesting that the star of the book himself.

 

I'd like to insist that every single person read this book, but realistically... every single person should read this book.  For those that enjoy science and history, it's a definite do-not-miss.

 

(This was a BookLikes-opoly Free Friday Read for July 7th and was 341 pages (minus the various appendices and index).

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review 2017-06-20 11:53
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

A pretty excellent book for anyone who gets a bit giddy about science and the everyday ways that science is part of everyone's life.

 

Czerski has a very accessible voice and a very clear way of explaining what are at times complex topics and she covers the gamut of topics:  electromagnetism, water tension, viscosity, plate tectonics, and Newton's laws of motion (I'm old-school) among them.  I learned so much about so many things and those that I had a basic understanding of, she elucidated in ways that really brought the concepts to life in better detail.  I had no idea that an electromagnet was what held down the tray in my toaster - did y'all know that?  That's why the tray doesn't stay down when the toaster is unplugged.  

 

So much of this book got read out loud to MT, who is not a lover of science, but even he found the bits I shared fascinating (he was equally surprised about the toaster), and there were so many suggestions throughout the book that can easily be done at home and I plan to do several of them with my nieces when next they are here - including building our own trebuchet.  

 

Honestly, anyone interested in science but might feel intimidated by the often tedious or complex explanations, or anyone who just thinks the science involved in the every day fascinating will get a lot out of this book.  Czerski often gets auto-biographical with her narrative, and sometimes it can feel a little forced, but she is a physicist, so why wouldn't she use her own experiences to illustrate her points?  (For the record, MT and I both think she and her friends got totally screwed over on the whole trebuchet debacle.)

 

Overall, a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

Total pages: 358

$$:  6.00

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review 2017-06-16 11:41
Platypus
Platypus - Ann Moyal

For Christmas a year and a half ago, my SIL bought me the chance to swim and play with a platypus at Healesville Sanctuary, the conservation facility that has been dedicated to the care and study of platypuses since the early 1900's.  It was, hands down, one of the best, if not the best, wildlife experiences I have ever had.

 

that's me with my new bestest friend!

 

I was besotted.  Besotted in the way that almost required me being physically dragged from the pool when it was time to leave.

 

So imagine my disappointment when I started reading Platypus and discovered not so much a book about platypuses, but a book on the human history of discovery and research on platypuses.  All of which apparently required an overabundance of killing, preserving and dissecting these wonderful, adorable, sweet animals.  The first approximately 190 pages of the slim 206 page book was not much more than a recitation of what could pretty much be defined as harvesting. 

 

Not. happy.

 

I went with three stars in a huge effort to be fair; it's relatively well-written (a bit dry) and for many this might have been exactly what they were expecting from the book.  I recognise the dichotomy that often arises from my adoration of animals and my love of science.  The last 15 pages or so was much more what I'd been expecting of the whole book and at least left me feeling somewhat upbeat, but on the whole, I did not like this book.

 

 

 

 

Total pages:  205

$$:  $3.00

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review 2017-05-01 11:49
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World
The Odditorium: The Tricksters, Eccentrics, Deviants and Inventors Whose Obsessions Changed the World - Jo Keeling,David Bramwell

This one should have been a 5 star, but I knocked 1/2 star off for some shocking editing blunders and another 1/2 star for occasionally crossing the line from humorous commentary into editorialising.  And really cheap, newsprint type paper stock. 

 

Otherwise it is an excellent read; most of the people profiled were unknown to me, so there was a lot of new information.  Those I'd heard of before were shown here from a different perspective, giving me a more rounded view of them.

 

The book is divided by types:  Tricksters and Subversives, Creative Mavericks, Wild at Heart, etc. with 8-10 people profiled under each.  The emphasis is on profile; these are not comprehensive by any stretch, but each chapter ends with suggestions for further exploration of each person via books, excursions, movies, etc..  I can't think of any of them that I didn't find fascinating in their own way and quite a few of them got the "read out loud" treatment.

 

If you like off-the-beaten-path knowledge and see this one out in the wild, check it out - it's worth a read.

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review 2017-02-24 01:20
The Genius of Birds
The Genius of Birds - Jennifer Ackerman

It seemed natural to move from a book about earthworms to a book about birds, and while the reading demographic for this one will naturally be larger, it's still not a book that will appeal to the masses.  

 

It should though.  I'm not a dedicated birdwatcher, but I find them fascinating, endearing, entertaining and sometimes comical.  And it turns out some of them are impressively clever.  In fact, accuse me of anthropomorphism if you'd like, but I'll go so far as to say intelligent.  

 

Not all of them of course; 15 seconds with any one of my chickens would put paid to that idea.  But we all know about crows and their ability to make and use tools; they can also play the game known as Concentration - the memory game where you have to match up images.  Going one step further, the crows, when asked to match a card with another that had a corresponding theme (i.e. match a card with 2 yellow squares with a card that has 2 yellow circles), the crows could immediately do it successfully.  That's cognition. 

 

Then there's Alex, the African Grey Parrot who not only knew hundreds of vocabulary words and how to use them in correct context, but could also categorise objects correctly and when asked how many objects were in a category could correctly answer 8 out of 10 times.

 

Clark's nutcrackers and scrub jays collect food for the winter and hide it in hidden caches.  These hidden caches can number up to 5,000 different locations in a single season for nutcrackers, and for scrub jays those caches include fresh fruit, insects and other perishable items.  7 out of 10 times the nutcrackers will go directly to the precise location of their stashes - that's 3500 little caches of food, buried anywhere in an area from a dozen square miles to hundreds of square miles, that they can immediately recall to the millimetre, as necessary.  The scrub jays keep track of what is in each of their caches, which caches have perishable items that need to be eaten first, and where those caches are.

 

I'm lucky if I can keep track of my keys and phone for more than 24 hours.

 

There's so much more, but I'll stick with the highlights.  And my personal favourite (I think - it's hard to choose):  The Satin Bowerbird.  The male satin bowerbird builds bowers as a way to woo a female (or females).  These aren't nests - no mating or rearing takes place in these bowers.  Rather they are monuments to, and for, seduction; the stage and props he'll use as the backdrop for his wooing dance: 

 

picture via viralforest.com

 

If that's not fancy enough to impress, how about the efforts of the Vogelkop Gardener Bowerbird?

picture via thewildernessalternative.com / the constant gardener

 

Each species of bower building bowerbirds is partial to a specific color.  Satin bowerbirds are all about the blues; in fact when scientists placed scarlet items in their bowers, the birds immediately ran in and removed those items and made sure they could not be seen from their bower.  When they couldn't be removed, they buried them.

 

The Genius of Birds is full of information like this, written in an easy conversational style but including the science, the studies, the theories and counter-theories.  Not enough to scare off the non-science bird-lovers, but more than enough to satisfy the armchair naturalist.  What's missing is referenced in a very comprehensive notes section at the back.  There are a few references to types of studies I abhor, no matter what anyone would argue about their scientific merit, but they're passed over quickly.

 

If you're interested in a broad overview of the under appreciated gifts birds have, and their misunderstood intelligence, this is a great book.  

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