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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-07-05 10:33
Extinction by Douglas H. Erwin
Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago - Douglas H. Erwin

TITLE: Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago


AUTHOR:  Douglas H. Erwin


DATE PUBLISHED:  2015 Updated Edition - New Preface (first publication 2006)


FORMAT:  Paperback


ISBN-13:  9780691165653




"Some 250 million years ago, the earth suffered the greatest biological crisis in its history. Around 95 percent of all living species died out--a global catastrophe far greater than the dinosaurs' demise 185 million years later. How this happened remains a mystery. But there are many competing theories. Some blame huge volcanic eruptions that covered an area as large as the continental United States; others argue for sudden changes in ocean levels and chemistry, including burps of methane gas; and still others cite the impact of an extraterrestrial object, similar to what caused the dinosaurs' extinction.

Extinction is a paleontological mystery story. Here, the world's foremost authority on the subject provides a fascinating overview of the evidence for and against a whole host of hypotheses concerning this cataclysmic event that unfolded at the end of the Permian.

After setting the scene, Erwin introduces the suite of possible perpetrators and the types of evidence paleontologists seek. He then unveils the actual evidence--moving from China, where much of the best evidence is found; to a look at extinction in the oceans; to the extraordinary fossil animals of the Karoo Desert of South Africa. Erwin reviews the evidence for each of the hypotheses before presenting his own view of what happened.

Although full recovery took tens of millions of years, this most massive of mass extinctions was a powerful creative force, setting the stage for the development of the world as we know it today.

In a new preface, Douglas Erwin assesses developments in the field since the book's initial publication."







Erwin provides us with an entertaining, informative and somewhat technical "whodunit" detective story, examining the "culprits" that may be responsible for the end-Permian mass extinction.  The author examines the various geological and paleontological evidence for what happened, when and what effects this may have had; and then tries to piece together which of several hypotheses are the more likely culprites of the extinction and which are just effects. 


The six major hypotheses that show some supporting data, and which Erwin focuses on, are as follows:

(1) an extraterrestrial impact of the some sort;

(2) extensive volcanism that produced the Siberian flood basalts (possibly triggered by an extraterrestrial impact), that radically changed the global climate and geochemistry;

(3) continental drift (plate tectonics) with the formation of Pangaea that caused an extensive reduction in biome types;

(4) extensive glaciation that caused a combination of global cooling and a drop in sea levels;

(5) a decrease in oxygen in shallow and deep seas due to one of several possible causes; and

(6) the "Murder on the Orient Express" hypothesis suggesting that a combination of several or all of the other already described events occurred nearly simultaneously


Erwin very helpfully comments on the strenght or weaknesses of the various hypotheses, and finally provides his conclusion based on the evidence.  Erwin also takes a look at the recovery of organisms AFTER the extinction, which is something few authors do.  However, the book was originally published in 2006, so some of this information is outdated or been superseededby additional information.  Erwin does discuss the new findings in his 2015 preface, for an up-to-date examination of the end Pemian extinction.  Despite new research into this topic, it seems like the author's "Murder on the Orient Express" hypotheses, where a variety of factors are responsible for the mass extinction, still seems to be valid.



Other useful books:


-When Life Nearly Died:  The Greatest Mass Extinction of All Time by Michael J. Benton

-The Worst of Times:  How Life on Earth Survived Eighty Million Years of Extinctions by Paul B. Wignall

-Life on a Young Planet:  The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth by Andrew H. Knoll

-The Goldilocks Planet:  The Four Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams

-The Ends of the World:  Supervolcanoes, Lethal Oceans, and the Search for Past Apocalypses by Peter Brannen

-The Emerald Planet:  How Plants Changed Earth's History by David Beerling





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review 2018-07-02 12:45
Fortress Plant by Dale Walters
 Fortress Plant: How to Survive When Everything Wants to Eat You - Dale Walters

TITLE:  Fortress Plant:  How to Survive When Everything Wants to Eat You


AUTHOR:  Dale Walters




FORMAT:  Hardback


ISBN-13:  978-0-19-874560-0



From the blurb:

"Everything, it seems, is out to get you - bacteria, fungi, insects, vegetarians... even other plants.  So how do you survive?  As Dale Walters explains in this extraordinary account, you fight back.  And plants are not short of weaponry.  Constant vigilance, rapid communications systems, several lines of fortifications, chemical weapons, insect allies - all are deployed against invaders.  And you can't rest.  You have to keep innovating, and sharpening your defences, because you can be sure your enemies will be finding ways around them.


All this, of course, happens withot direction of purpose.  These are evolutionary arms races resulting from natural selection.  But they are no less deadly for that."



Dale Walters makes use of an amusing fortress metaphor (the plant is the fortress and bacteria, fungi, insects, vegetarians etc are the invaders) to explore the large variety of methods stationary plants use to defend themselves from everything that want to eat them.  This book is divided into chapters on "recognizing the enemy", alerting the plant of imminent invasion "call to arms", the weapons of war, the variety of chemical compounds used to deter/destroy invaders, aid from plant "friends", and the never-ending evolving arms-race between plants and their enemies.  This book is written with the intelligent, intersted reader in mind - not everything is over-explained or simplified and there is a fair amount of botany and biochemistry involved.  However,   I do not believe that there is anything particularly difficult to understand in this book provided the reader is paying attention and not expecting to breeze through the book.  I found this book very interesting, with a lovely writing style, juicy science stuff and no irrelevant biographical side tangents.  The multitude of photographs were also very useful.





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review 2018-05-07 07:32
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup


TITLE:  A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie


AUTHOR:  Kathryn Harkup




FORMAT:  Hardcover


ISBN-13:  9781472911308








From the blurb:

"People are fascinated by murder. The popularity of murder mystery books, TV series, and even board games shows that there is an appetite for death, and the more unusual or macabre the method, the better. With gunshots or stabbings the cause of death is obvious, but poisons are inherently more mysterious. How are some compounds so deadly in such tiny amounts?

Agatha Christie used poison to kill her characters more often than any other crime fiction writer. The poison was a central part of the novel, and her choice of deadly substances was far from random; the chemical and physiological characteristics of each poison provide vital clues to the discovery of the murderer. Christie demonstrated her extensive chemical knowledge (much of it gleaned by working in a pharmacy during both world wars) in many of her novels, but this is rarely appreciated by the reader.

Written by former research chemist Kathryn Harkup, each chapter takes a different novel and investigates the poison used by the murderer. Fact- and fun-packed, A is for Arsenic looks at why certain chemicals kill, how they interact with the body, and the feasibility of obtaining, administering, and detecting these poisons, both when Christie was writing and today.


Kathryn Harkup has written a lovely book that explores the poisons used by Agatha Christie in her novels.  The introductory chapter provides some interesting biographical material of Christie and why she knew so much about poisons.  Harkup then dedicates the next 14 chapters to a specific poison, such as arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus ricin, strychnine, thallium and veronal (a type of barbiturate).  Each chapter describes how Christie used the poison in her novels, how the poison works, if there is an antidote, and examples of the poison used in real life.

I am not an Agatha Christie fan so found the sections describing Christie's novels and their plot summaries didn't particularly appeal to me, and also became tedious after a while.  Reading several plot summaries does not make for thrilling reading.  Harukp managed to avoid spoilers for the most part, or at least warned of spoilers before discussing pertinent Christie novels.  This will no doubt be appreciated for Christie fans who haven't read all of her novels.


The sections that describe how each poison effects the body were more interesting to me.  Harkup provided enough science to understand why substances were toxic without bogging the lay reader down with irrelevant detail.    Many poisons have similar effects on the body (i.e. they impair nerve functioning), so some sections were a bit repetitive by necessity.  Appendix 2 provides structures of a few of the chemicals described in the book, which was a nice addition.


The real life poisoning attempts were also interesting, especially the manner in which the poisoners were eventually caught.


This book would appeal to fans of Agatha Christie and for those who would like to know how a variety of poisons work.  There is no overall narrative, and each chapter can be read separately and out of order.  None the less, this is an interesting, informative and enjoyable book.





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review 2017-02-17 06:25
Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World by Nick Lane
Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World - Nick Lane

This is an extremely interesting and well written book about oxygen - how oxygen spurred the evolution of life, the functioning of oxygen in biological systems, aging, how oxygen relates to everyday life (besides breathing), amongst others. The nice thing about this book is that the author assumes his readers are intelligent and so doesn't simplify his writing or the concepts so much that it practically turns into gibberish.



The author's view of junk DNA is a bit dated - the book was published in 2002 and research on junk DNA has advanced since then. Some other information might also be dated, but that is simply how science and science writing work.  If you are intelligent enough to read this book, you should also be intelligent enough not to swallow everything you read - hook, line and sinker.



* The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History by David Beerling

* Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph M. Nesse, George C. Williams

* Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future by Peter D. Ward


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review 2016-11-11 00:00
Science Encyclopedia: Atom Smashing, Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More!
Science Encyclopedia: Atom Smashing, Foo... Science Encyclopedia: Atom Smashing, Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More! - National Geographic Kids The Science Encyclopedia: Atom Smashing, Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More! is not a book a child will get through in a day. Or even in a week. At 304 pages, it’s a fair monster of a book. It’s a good thing, though, considering all the information stuffed in it. I loved that right away they made science accessible to kids. They made it clear that science has touched almost every part of their lives in some way. From the computer they play on to the food they eat. I also appreciated that they clarified scientific theory immediately. Given that most adults don’t seem to know the difference between a theory in casual conversation and the scientific theory, it was needed! The Physical Sciences and Life Sciences are briefly, but thoroughly explained before book dives into anything in-depth.

The editors have done their best to make sure the format is one that keeps the reader’s attention. The various sections are well-defined, the font varied as necessary. Colors and pictures play a huge role in the information. The Science Encyclopedia is for 8-12 year olds. To be honest, I think it might be a little much for the younger end of that age range. It gets in-depth enough that younger children might get easily lost. It really depends on the child though. They did do a great job of giving enough information to make the reader feel like they ‘got it’ on a basic level, but not into the minutiae.

All the “Try This!” experiments contained within the Science Encyclopedia seems very appropriate for the intended age range. I loved the “Geek Streak” tidbits. They were extremely well named as a number of them made me perk up when I read them! The “LOL!” sections were awesomely groan worthy. Having been told I have the sense of humor of a 10-year-old boy, I feel my words carry some weight on this. The “Personality Plus” sections attempt to put names and faces to scientific discoveries. I didn’t particular care for them, but appreciated their inclusion nonetheless. The Word Check sessions were good vocabulary builders.

I can’t say that Science Encyclopedia: Atom Smashing, Food Chemistry, Animals, Space, and More is my favorite book from National Geographic, but it is a wonderful one. It does what it sets out to do. Whether you get it for your mini-geek at home, or are a teacher purchasing it for your classroom, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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