07 July, 2010

Tomes 2010: A Little Light Summer Reading

At this rate, I'm going to need a bigger apartment.  And yes, I could use the library, but a) I never know what exactly I'm going to want next and b) I never know what I'm going to refer back to in the future.  Not to mention c) I just like being surrounded by books.  Besides, they insulate!

I'm not even going to pretend I remember the order I read these in.  We'll just go alphabetically by science.  Follow me after the jump, and we'll get to it.


Death From the Skies!  The Science Behind the End of the World...

I have, at long last, read Phil Plait's book.  I knew he was a superb blogger, but he's also an outstanding author.  This is one of the most entertaining, if sometimes terrifying, books I've ever read.  Unlike most scientists who use the end of the world as a hook for science, Phil treats the subject with the proper mix of respect and hilarity, with heaping doses of "it'll probably never happen, but it's too fun not to speculate."  This book probably taught me more about physics and astronomy in one compact, enjoyable read than all the previous serious, heavy tomes I've read.  And I'll be referring back to it often to explain network outages and problems with cell phone service.  Maybe it was a solar flare, or gamma ray bursts, or a black hole passing through.

This is an indispensable read for anyone who needs to explain to dimwitted scaremongers why the Large Hadron Collider isn't going to kill us all, and even if it did, it wouldn't happen the way the idiot thinks it will.

And I have only one thing to say to Phil: Write More Books!


The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time

I read this book over a month ago, and it stands out.  Hands-down, this is one of the best books on evolution I've ever read.  It's not just about Darwin's finches.  It's about evolution in action.  It follows Peter and Rosemary Grant as they study the Galapagos finches season after season, watching them evolve in real time.  Throw in quite a lot of cutting-edge evolutionary research and some Charles Darwin history, and we've got a book that feels like it's about 5,000 pages and isn't long enough by half.  Oh, and Jonathan Weiner's a wonderful writer.  Reading his prose is like drinking claret.

And because no science book is complete without hysterically funny anecdotes about the hazards of field work, I just want to refer you to page 48, where you'll learn why researcher Ian Abbott "hated a barnacle as no man ever had before," and is a cautionary tale about always wearing your undies.


Geology of the Sierra Nevada

I, alas, did not read the revised edition, as Powell's hadn't got one.  But the original was quite good anyway.  I've always been interested in how the Sierra Nevada formed, why Yosemite is the way it is, and all that.  This book covers that, including very clear explanations about how granite weathers and how glaciers manage to carve all that hard rock. 

This edition was written the year I was born, which means plate tectonics was brand new, and it was fun watching geologists working to understand the Sierra Nevada in light of that revolutionary new theory.  It's also got great guides to rocks of the area, discussions of mining techniques, and a lot of other fascinating stuff.  My edition, at least, was compact enough to fit into a pocket, which will make it an essential companion when I finally get to trek around the place.

Glacial Lake Missoula and Its Humongous Floods

How can you not love a book with this title?  David Alt's also one of the driving forces behind the Roadside Geology series, so you know he knows how to show you where to find the good stuff.  And this is good stuff - an astounding tale of catastrophic floods that repeatedly scoured Washington State.  David follows those floods as they break the ice dam in Montana and cascade through my state, changing its features forever.  He also gives us an introduction to J Harlen Bretz, who was the geologist who took a look at the scablands and said, "Sure looks like a humongous flood went through here."  Okay, not in so many words, but still.

This is an excellent introduction to some rather complicated geology, exploring the landforms that helped geologists piece together the story of repeated floods so huge they beggar the imagination.  Clear pictures and easy-to-understand diagrams complete your education.  And the tongue-in-cheek humor makes the whole thing go down smooth.

The Seashell on the Mountaintop

Ever since Walter Alvarez introduced me to Nicolaus Steno, I've been wanting to get to know him better.  And here Alan Cutler's written a whole awesome biography!  Serendipity, I tells ya.

Steno's life is given a thorough treatment.  We learn that he's not just the father of stratigraphy, but was one of the premier anatomists of his time, figuring out bits of the body that nobody had ever figured before.  He lived in a fascinating time, too, when the patronage of the Medicis fed the arts and sciences, and Leonardo da Vinci very nearly figured fossils out before he got busy doing other things.  You'll meet an interesting cast of characters, some of whom will be familiar and some who damned well should've been.  But have tissue handy - it's a bittersweet ending.

It's too bad Steno turned from science to God.  We might have ended up figuring out how the world works a lot faster if he'd kept his eyes on the ground.

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity

Figured I might as well read another biography of another founder of modern geology, and poor James Hutton's rather sadly neglected anyway.  He's the one who wrote The Theory of the Earth, which everyone tends to deride as too obtuse to be a good read.  In this book, we discover that the writing wasn't as crisp and clear as it might have been because Dr. Hutton was dying in great pain at the time.  And yet he still managed to write a foundational tome which, due to the efforts of his good friend John Playfair, remained influential enough for Charles Lyell to pick up the theory and run with it, and geology was well and truly born.

This biography does the great man justice, tracing his discovery of deep time in loving detail.  But it's not just about a man and his rocks, but a man and his time.  You'll be immersed in Hutton's Scotland, which was an intellectually invigorating place to be.  You'll also take a side trip down Biblical Chronology Lane, which was quite a lot like poking about in a sideshow, complete with freaks.  This is definitely one I'll read again, just for the atmosphere.


Proust Was a Neuroscientist


I was excited about this one, but when I began reading it, there was rather too much of the "artists know more than scientists, so there, pbbbttt!" for my tastes.  Yes, artists can have insights.  Yes, their ideas sometimes track remarkably well with scientific discoveries.  No, that does not mean that artists are usually right and scientists always running to catch up.  There are some interesting discussions of various and sundry experimental novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, usually just enough to ensure that I'll never bother to wade through pounds and pounds of pretentious pap.  Sorry, I like storytelling, not navel gazing.  Maybe that makes me a prole, but so be it.

I spent most of the book feeling irritated.  That is the word that shall forever be associated with reading it: irritation.  And that irritation rather overwhelms the few beneficial bits.

I would have gotten far more out of this book had it been a bit less snide.  As it is, this one shall be the first sacrificed when next I make a pilgrimage to Powell's.

A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness

Ah, Dr. Ramachandran!  Here to rescue neuroscience from pretentious putzes who are so busy denigrating scientists they forget to write about the science.  Oliver Sacks has a worthy successor. 

This one gives us a good look at some fascinating facts of the way the mind works, and all of it is wonderful.  My absolute favorite chapter, however, is "The Artful Brain," which gave me an entirely new appreciation of art and left me wanting far, far more.  Alas, the promised book mentioned in that chapter is not available, so I shall have to content myself with this only - for now.  In this chapter, we learn why the Victorians freaked out when first exposed to Indian art, the principles that make art art to our brains, and ways in which the artless may become artistic - if they don't mind somebody paralyzing bits of their brains, that is.

This is one of the few books I've read every one of the extensive Notes to.  The Notes are practically another book, a gloss and a commentary that's every bit as good as the rest, which is rare.  Dr. Ramachandran is one of those rare folks who are not only great scientists, but truly gifted writers.  He makes it all look easy.

He'd better write more books, and I mean now.


Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

If you're already familiar with Richard Fortey's sublime writing, this book is going to throw you.  First off, it's a history of the Natural History Museum, and while there's plenty of paleontology, that's not the main focus.  Secondly, it's a bit of a slow start.  Stick with it, though - it delivers.

You will never look at a natural history museum in the same way ever again.

Fortey takes us behind the scenes and introduces us to the history of the museum (interesting), some of its more - um, shall we say, colorful - denizens (startling), and makes a passionate case for the importance of museums (galvanizing).  And, just like when you visit a museum, you'll get a heaping helping of science education along with all the displays.  I ended up enjoying this one far more than I expected to, and I hated to see it end.  Now I want to go to England and spend about a month messing about the Museum, because it would take that long merely to scratch the surface.

This book will make you want to go hug your local science museum.  By all means, do.

I've actually read a few more than what we've got here, but I think this will do for now.  Besides, it's time to put the clear coat on my shelves so my rocks will have a home.

1 comment:

jjmcgaffey said...

I hate you. That's - um, seven books I hadn't heard about and now need to read. I knew Death from the Skies, and thank you for warning me off Proust was a Neuroscientist - but seven books on subjects I enjoy, some of which I knew a little about (the finches and the floods) but would love to read more of...

Sigh. Off to add to my wishlist. Found you from a tweet by BadAstronomer, now going to be checking you myself...