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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-07-17 11:52
THE INVENTION of NATURE BY ANDREA WULF
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

TITLE:  The Invention of Nature:  Alexander von Humboldt's New World

 

AUTHOR:   Andrea Wulf

 

Publisher:  Knopf

 

Format:  e-book

 

ISBN-13:  978-0-385-35067-9

 

 

BOOK REVIEW

 

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf is not  a complete or in-depth biography, but rather a journey to discover the forgotten life (and far reaching influence) of Alexander von Humboldt, the visionary Prussian naturalist and explorer whose ideas changed the way we perceive the natural world, and in the process created modern environmentalism. 

 

In this book, Wulf traces the threads that connect us to this extraordinary man, showing how Humboldt influenced many of the greatest artists, thinkers and scientists of his day.  However, today he is almost forgotten outside academia (due to politics and changing fashions), despite his ideas still shaping out thinking.  Ecologists, environmentalists and nature writers rely on Humboldt's vision, although most do so unknowingly.  It is the author's stated objective to "rediscover Humboldt, and to restore him to his rightful place in the pantheon of nature and science" and to "understand why we think as we do today about the natural world".    In my opinion, Andrea Wulf successfully shows the many fundamental ways in which Humboldt created our understanding of the natural world, and she champions a renewed interest in this vital and lost player in environmental history and science.

 

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the founders of modern biology and ecology, and had a direct effect on scientists and political leaders.  Wulf examines how Humboldt’s writings inspired other naturalists, politicians and poets such as Charles Darwin, Wordsworth, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, John Muir and Thoreau.  The author successfully integrates Humboldt's life and activities into the political and social scene so we can get a picture of how important Humboldt was, and still is.  Many people considered him the most famous scientist of his age.

 

Humboldt was a hands-on scientist.  His expeditions of discovery led him through Europe, Latin America and eventually Siberia.  He strongly desired to see the Himalaya, but the East India Company didn't want to co-operate for fear that he would write unflattering comments about their form of governance.

 

Humboldt also continued to assist young scientists, artists and explorers throughout his life, often helping them financially despite his own debt. 

 

Alexander von Humboldt led a colourful and adventurous life, but this book also shows us why Humboldt is so important:

- he is the founding father of environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers.

- he made science accessible and popular - everybody learned from him.

- he believed that education was the foundation of a free and happy society.

- his interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever as scientists are trying to understand man's effect on the world.

- his beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and in fostering communication across disciplines, are the pillars of science today.

- his concept of nature as one of global patterns underpins our thinking today.

- his insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain topical today.

- he wrote about the abolition of slavery and the disastrous consequences of reckless colonialism.

 - he believed that knowledge had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everbody.

- he invented isotherms (the lines of temperature and pressure on weather maps).

- he discovered the magnetic equator.

- he developed the idea of vegetation and climate zones.

- his quantitative work on  botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography.

-  he was one of the first people to propose that South America and Africa were once joined.

- he was the first person to describe the phenomenon and cause of human-induced climate change, based on observations made during his travels.

- he contributed to geology through his study of mountains and volcanoes.

- he was a significant contributor to cartography by creating maps of little-explored regions.

- his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

- he revolutionized the way we see the natural world.

- he developed the web of life (the concept of nature as a chain of causes and effects).

- he was the first scientist to talk about human-induced environmental degradation.

- he was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate:  the tree's ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect.

- he warned that the agricultural techniques of his day could have devastating consequences.

- he discovered the idea of a keystone species (a species that is essential for an ecosystem to function) almost 200 years before the concept was named.

- he confirmed that the Casiquiare was a natural waterway between the Orinoco and the Rio Negro, which is a tributary of the Amazon, and made a detailed map.

- he considered the replacement of food crops with cash crops to be a recipe for dependency and injustice.  He felt that monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, and that subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety, was a better alternative.

 

I found the chapters that describe Humboldt's expeditions to be fascinating - filled with hazards, wild animals, pests, injuries, epidemics, new discoveries and ideas.  The chapters that discuss his busy social and work life were also interesting.  However, I wish the author had spend more page space on his expeditions and discoveries, and less on the biographies of the people he influenced, especially the last few chapters which were somewhat long-winded.  What I found rather refreshing was the lack of author speculation and interjection of her own theories - the narrative sticks to what is known.  The author also manages to convey Humboldt's enthusiasm and energy so that the reader feels breathless just reading about all his activities.

 

This biographical search for the invention of nature and the man who "invented" it, provides a great deal of food for thought, woven around the life of a great (and overly energetic) scientist.  This was an enjoyable and informative reading experience.

 

 

 

NOTE:  This book includes three clear, easy to read maps that were particularly useful in following Humboldt's Journeys, and a large number of black and white, as well as colour illustrations were also included in the book.  In addition, the author included an extensive section of notes, sources and bibliography, an index and a note on Humboldt's publications.

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review 2017-07-06 09:06
25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment by Daniel B. Botkin
25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment: What Many Environmentalists Believe and Why They Are Wrong - Daniel B. Botkin,Alfred Runte

TITLE:   25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment: What Many Environmentalists Believe and Why They Are Wrong

 

AUTHOR:  Daniel B. Botkin

 

DATE PUBLISHED:  2017

 

FORMAT:  Paperback

 

ISBN-13:  978-1-4422-4492-4

 

 

25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment is a book about ecology, the environment, nature and misleading information (myths) about these topics that circulate in both ecological and political discussions.  These myths often drive policy and opinion, and thus funding.  What may seem to be an environmentally conscious action on the one hand may very well be bringing about the unnatural destruction of habitats and ecosystems.  Daniel B. Botkin takes a look at these myths and explains why they are incorrect or misleading.  


The author takes a look at what has gone wrong with the environmental sciences.  He states that "much valuable and helpful research has been and continues to be done in the environmental sciences, but citizens need to be able to distinguish the good (and important) from the bad".  Botkin shows that the myths are alive, active and dominant in determining laws, policies, and action, and that they still form the basis of many major research projects.

The author's stated goal is to share with the reader what be believes we need to do, how we should think about the environment with people in it, and how to avoid the many pitfalls that plague attempts to solve environmental problems.  I believe that the author has achieved most of his stated goals with this book.  The book certainly provides food for thought and all politicians, policy makers, students (i.e. future policy makers and environmentalists) and the general public should read it.

Each chapter is dedicated to one myth, with a section at the end of each chapter that summaries what difference it make if we believe that particular myth.  The introductory chapter discusses why people are so attached to these myths.  This interesting book is easy to read and has numerous coloured photographs or diagrams for each chapter.

 

 


"Nature isn't just something out there that you visit in a park or zoo; it is what we live within.  We are not separate from nature; we are within it, and would not survive if we weren't."
-Daniel B.Botkin  [25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment, 2017, pg 4].

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review 2017-07-03 08:33
Tales From The Underground by David W. Wolfe
Tales From The Underground: A Natural History Of Subterranean Life - David W. Wolfe

TITLE:  Tales from the Underground:  A Natural History of Subterranean Life

 

AUTHOR:  David W. Wolfe

 

DATE PUBLISHED:  2002

 

FORMAT:  Paperback

 

ISBN-13:  9780738206790

 

The subterranean is not one world but many.  It is filled with many unique habitats, and the occupants of these habitats range in size from the microscopic bacteria to the easily visible earth worms and burrowing animals.  Tales from the Underground is not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the subject of soil ecology.  The author's goal is to introduce the reader to a few of the most intriguing creatures on the underground and to the sometimes equally intriguing scientists and explorers who have studied them.   With the many interesting creatures and scientists discussed in this book, I feel the author has achieved his goals.

This book takes a look at the Earth's most ancient life forms, the extremophiles; bacterium; fungi; earthworms; the dual nature of soils with regards to deadly plant and animal diseases; the tragic history of human interactions with prairie dogs, burrowing owls and the black-footed ferret.  This book also explores the impact of human activities on the soil resources important to our food security and the potential for using soil microbes for intermediation of damaged soil.  The author also takes a look at the various hypothesis that try to explain the origin of life in which dirt or soil play a role e.g. the "clay-gene" theory in which clay crystals act as a catalyst and gene precursors.

The author states that he hopes that as more of us become aware of the life beneath our feet, we will be inclined to work together to maintain the biological integrity of the underground, an preserve some of what we find there for future generations.


"With each new subterranean discovery, it becomes more apparent that the niche occupied by Homo sapiens is more fragile and much less central than we once thought."


This book contains diagrams where relevant and a decent reference section.  However, the author tends to select too many examples and creatures from the U.S.A, which is a bit annoying, since there is an entire planet full of underground creatures and humans that interact with them.  The book is well written without excessive biographical detail and a fair amount of detailed information on each topic.  I believe this book would be easy to understand for the general reader.  Tales of the Underground provides an enjoyable look at some of the interesting underground citizens.

 

 

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review 2017-07-02 10:41
The Goldilocks Planet: The Four Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate by Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams
The Goldilocks Planet: The 4 Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate - Mark Williams,Jan Zalasiewicz

TITLE:  The Goldilocks Planet:  The Four Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate

 

AUTHOR:  Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams

 

DATE PUBLISHED:  2013

 

FORMAT:  Paperback

 

ISBN-13:  978-0-19-968350-5

 

 

 

The Goldilocks Planet:  The Four Billion Year Story of Earth's Climate takes a look at the Earth's climate from the planet's formation to the current age and then takes a look at what our future climate might have in store for us. In short, the book contents are as described on the "box".

 

In this book, the authors reconstruct and describe how the Earth's climate has continuously altered over its 4.5 billion-year history.  The story can be read from clues preserved in the Earth's strata, in fossils, in ancient air samples, in mineral samples, extinction events etc.  The book describes how changes in the global and regional climate range from bitterly cold to sweltering hot, from arid to humid, and they have impacted enormously upon the planet's evolving animal and plant communities, and upon its physical landscapes of the Earth.  However, in spite of this, the Earth has remained consistently habitable for life for over three billion years - in stark contrast to its planetary neighbours.  Not too hot, not too cold; not too dry, not too wet, it is aptly known as 'the Goldilocks planet'.

This book is wonderfully written!  And so interesting!  Minimal personal anecdotes, not too much biographical detail (just enough to be interesting) and lots of lovely, juicy science - all explained to be easily understandable but not simplified to be completely useless.  The authors have also included numerous helpful diagrams and graphs.  I wouldn't call this a popular science book, but it isn't a text book either.  I wish more science books were written like this book.

 

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review 2017-06-17 00:45
Am I no longer afraid of robots?
The Wild Robot - Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown has both fascinated me and frightened me for at least 2 months now. I kept seeing the cover when I was shelving or visiting other branches and the image of the single robot standing on top of a pile of rocks kept leaping out at me. I finally gave up the fight when I decided that middle grade fiction was the way to cure my book reading blues. I'm glad that I did because The Wild Robot was a lot of fun to read (and it turns out it's the start of a series!) made even more amazing by the superb illustrations supplied by the author. [A/N Peter Brown is no stranger to creating books as he's a well-known children's picture book author/illustrator but this is his first attempt at middle grade fiction.] This isn't your standard 'robot story' but instead it's a look at climate change, the ever-evolving landscape of our world with the advent of technology, and what it means to be truly alive. In short, it's beautiful, thought-provoking literature. The illustrations peppered throughout enhance the story by adding depth to the characters (I love that they're black and white.). Roz is doing the best she can given her circumstances which is really all that anyone can do. The only difference is that she's an artificial lifeform living on an island without any humans. How will this shape her? Will her presence have any effect on the local fauna and flora? Brown's commentary on our world is perfectly geared for a younger audience but it wouldn't go amiss for the adult crowd either. ;-) I can't wait to see how this story continues to develop as Peter carries on with the series. 10/10

 

For a look at the book from the author's perspective check out this awesome post written by Peter about his process of getting his book published: "The Wild Robot lives!".

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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