Category Archives: Science Books 2009

Cold by Bill Streever

Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places

by Bill Streever

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009

Borrowed from my local library.

Bill Steever, an Alaskan biologist, takes his readers through the cycle of  a year visiting different places affected by cold.  Not just the temperature, but the geology, the impact on human habitation and plant and animal adaptations. He includes the history of the science of cold, the search for absolute zero  and human exploration into regions were temperatures fall to 60 below.

This is the kind of natural history-science book I love, the kind I can open up at any page and find something really intriguing.  He includes writings by authors who have studied the cold, animals that live in cold habitats or lived through expeditions into frigid climates including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, John Muir, Farley Mowat, and Bernd Heinrich.

There are sections on the discovery of  the ice ages.

A year later, in 1837, Agassiz presided over a meeting of the Natural History Society of Switzerland.  In his introductory speech, when he was expected to talk about fossil fish, he sprang the idea of an ice age.  Although Charpentier knew that the alpine glaciers had once covered more of the Alps then they currently did, Agassiz went further.  He described a sheet of ice that went from the North Pole to the Mediterranean.  He knew that some would view this as hairbrained.  “I am afraid,” he said, “that this approach will not be accepted by a great number of our geologists, who have well established opinions on this subject, and the fate of this question will be that of all those who contradict traditional ideas.  From page 62.

There are many references to animal adaptation, evolution and migration.  Why do some animals thrive in the cold and others migrate?  And its not just animals, all life forms have found their place on this planet and as the climate changes all living things adapt or die.

There is more to be learned.  There are , for example, physiological adaptations.  Not unexpectedly, birds put on fat, but in some cases nonessential organs shrink.  Just before migration, the bartailed godwit becomes fifty-five percent fat, but its kidneys, liver and intestines shrink.  Then it flies nonstop at something like 45 miles per hour for days on end.  The speed and exact route of many birds are not known.  Migrating sea ducks tracked by radar in the Arctic fly at more than 50 miles per hour.  A dunlin– a long-beaked shorebird–was once clocked at 110 miles per hour, passing a small plane.  From page 88.

Ranges of species go where species work best, destined by the character of their enzymes, destined by how well their enzymes work at different temperatures.  But also: Who will graze on my leaves?  Who will eat me?  Whom will I eat?  Is there space for my nest?  Is the soil right for my burrows or my roots?  Who will drive me away?  Puffins became scarce around Great Britain after 190 not because of air temperature, but because the fish they ate followed a shift in water temperature.  The birds followed the fish.  When water temperature shifted again around 1950, the fish returned, and with them the puffins.  The lives within biomes are interwoven, and if one species can go no further because of the temperature, it may affect another species, and another, and another, until it appears as though there is some definite boundary and that everything responds in concert.  But zoom in on the map, look a little closer, and the boundaries blur. Brown bears live in tundra and taiga and temperate deciduous forest.  Caribou migrate across biome boundaries.  The red fox, the tiger, the wolf, the wolverine and the raven all cross biome boundaries as if they did not exist, as if they have never read an ecology textbook, or studied a biome map.  From page 99

Streever talks about climate change in a balanced way, describing planetary changes and changes exacerbated by human technologies.   He is enthralled by the cold, and saddened by the prospect of loosing areas of colder climates.  This well-written little book is full of interesting facts about humans and animals that live in cold places.  I plan on adding a copy to my shelf of natural history books.

Often whales and seals and otters are the hottest things around.  A Wendell seal, a thousand pound of fur and blubber and heart and lung and rete mirabile, might lie on the Antarctic ice, open the shunts that let warm blood flow through its blubber, and create above a cloud of steam.  After a time, bored or hungry or spooked by a nosy human, it might flop from the ice into the water.  It might leave behind the marine mammal equivalent of a snow angel, an outline of itself melted into the ice, a negative image of belly and fins and head in three dimensions.  The Wendell seal thumbs its nose at the cold, leaving in the ice an image that is often called a seal shadow.  From page 129.

4 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2009, World Citizen 2009

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes

0375507299.01._SY190_SCLZZZZZZZ_ The Snow Geese:  A Story of Home

by William Fiennes

Random House, New York, 2002

At the age of twenty-five  William Fiennes fell ill.  His parents welcomed him home to recuperate.  He hoped to be back at work in three weeks but it took much longer. In the hospital, out again, in again, always returning home, back to his childhood room.

As a change of scenery his mother suggested a stay at hotel on the Welsh border.  There, in the library, he found a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose”.  He remembered  hearing the story in school at age ten.  He remembered the classroom with high windows  and his teacher, Mr. Faulkner.

Fiennes’s father had always loved birds but William had never had the patience to learn about them.  When they came back from the hotel he couldn’t get “The Snow Goose” out of his head.  Gaining strength he grew restless.  After seeing a map of bird migration routes he decided to undertake a journey.   He would follow snow geese from their wintering ground in Texas to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic.

The day before I left for Texas, I took the train home from London.  In the afternoon, my father and I went for a walk.  A pink kite was snarled in the churchyard yew tree; there were clumps of moss like berets on the corners of the headstones.  We climbed a gate and strode out across Danvers Meadow, heading westward, leaning into the slope, last year,s sere beech leaves strewn through the grass.  My father was wearing tan corduroy trousers and an old battered green waxed jacket; in one pocket he kept a matching green waxed hat in case of rain.  We walked at a steady pace, talking about the journey ahead of me, the rhythm of the walk going on under the words like a tempo. Page 16

Thus begins a magical story of migration and homecoming.  The Snow Geese is a record of a very personal journey filled with precise observations of birds and of people.  Fiennes writes wonderfully about bird migration, behavior and physiology.

The swifts come back each year, in the last week of May.  These were common swifts, Apus apus, sooty black all over save for a pale chin, known variously as skeer devils, swing devils, jack squealers, screech martins, shriek owls, or screeks–names that alluded to the bird’s fiendish screaming fight and diabolic black appearance.  Swifts like to nest in the nooks in the stonework of high walls, under eaves, even among rafters, and show a high degree of philopatry (from the Greek words philein, “to love”, and patria, “homeland”), with generation after generation returning to favored nesting sites.  The advantage of this behavior are clear: if a bird is familiar with its environment, it is likely to be less susceptible to predators and more efficient at finding food.  Philopatry tends to develop in species that nest in stable, reliable sites such as cliffs or buildings, rather than in species that use unstable sites like river sandbars.  There’s  no point in returning to a place if you can’t rely upon its qualities.  Pages141/142

His descriptions of visits with people along the route are perfect snapshots of  North American culture as well as of human nature.  He does not hesitate to turn the spotlight on himself.

I lay awake, thinking of home.  Not just of the ironstone house–my mother’s evening viola scales coming up the stairs–but also of the London flat in which I had been living, the streets around it, the faces and voices of friends, the things we laughed about.  Such images had occupied my mind with increasing frequency ever since my stay in the white motel in Aberdeen.  In that room my curiosity, my appetite for the new seemed to tire or slacken, perhaps because I was lonely, or because I felt for the first time that my journey north with the snow geese was not quite the shout of freedom I had presupposed.  I was aware of another impulse that, if not the opposite of curiosity, was certainly resistant to the new or the strange and sympathetic to everything I could remember and understand.  This wasn’t the acute longing I remembered from the hospital, that desperate nostalgic desire to return to the circumstances  of childhood.  Lying awake on the train, what I felt was no more than a mild ache, bittersweet, an awareness of separation from the things I loved, an almost corporeal inclination towards familiar ground.  It was as if I existed between two poles, the known and the new, and found myself drawn alternately from one to the other. Page 176/177

The Snow Geese is a delightful book, lively and bright, filled with wonderful facts about birds.  I love Fiennes’s writing, it is clean, vivid and intensely detailed.  I can not wait to read his new book, The Music Room.

Other reviews:

dovegreyreader scribbles

Musings

At the age of twenty-five  William Fiennes fell ill.  His parents welcomed him home to recuperate.  He hoped to be back at work in three weeks but it took much longer. In the hospital, out again, in again, always returning home, back to his childhood room.

As a change of scenery his mother suggested a stay at hotel on the Welsh border.  There, in the library, he found a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose”.  He remembered  hearing the story in school at age ten.  He remembered the classroom with high windows  and his teacher, Mr. Faulkner.

Fiennes’s father had always loved birds but William had never had the patience to learn about them.  When they came back from the hotel he couldn’t get “The Snow Goose” out of his head.  Gaining strength he grew restless.  After seeing a map of bird migration routes he decided to undertake a journey.   He would follow snow geese from their wintering ground in Texas to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic.  The Snow Geese is a record of that journey.

7 Comments

Filed under Animals, Challenges, Memoir, Nature, Science, Science Books 2009

Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For The Origin Of Species – Sean B. Carroll

Rem015101485X.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures In The Search For Origins Of Species by Sean B. Carrroll

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston & New York, 2009

A 5 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating.

A book to fill my head with thoughts of fieldwork!  Great stories from the history of geology, zoology, anthropology and genetics.

Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics,  follows scientific explorers from naturalist Alexander Von Humbolt to geneticists Vincent Sarich and Allan Wilson as they pursue the geological history of earth and the evolution of life over time.  Covering the past 150 years he charts the development of, and changes in, the understanding of  human evolution.  Carroll is a wonderful writer and frames this book like a detective story, following the adventures of people who are familiar, like Charles Darwin, and those who are unfamiliar, like John Ostrom.

This is a wonderful book for those familiar with the sciences and those who just like a good adventure story.  My only problem with it is now I have a list of about a dozen books to add to my to-be-read pile!

2 Comments

Filed under Challenges, Nonfiction, Review, Science, Science Books 2009

Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel L. Everett

51bgzr4cupl_sl160_1A 4 out of 5 ScienceBook 2009 rating

I was excited to read  Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes because it covers two of my favorite topics, anthropology and linguistics. It is well-written, fast moving and filled with great stories about life in the Amazon jungle .

Daniel L Everett is the Chair of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Illinois State University. He has written a book that is the story of his young family’s stay with the Piraha, a small group of people who live in the Amazon basin. Everett went to the jungle as a missionary. His original purpose for going was to learn the language so that he could translate the Bible. It is a strategy Christian organizations use, hoping for religious conversions. The Piraha culture is very different than that of their American visitors and Everett struggles to understand it. His visit and the work he did with this group of people changed his world view completely.

This book is also an anthropological study of life among the Piraha and the other groups that share the land along the Maici River. It tells of their daily life, their knowledge of their environment and their relations with their neighbors. His observations of their daily life are filled with a a sense of excitement and interest.

From page 100: It is interesting to me that in spite of a strong sense of community, there is almost no community-approved coercion of the village members. It is unusual for a Piraha to order another Piraha about, even for a parent to order about a child. This happens occasionally, but it is generally frowned upon or discouraged as indicated by the remarks, expressions and gestures of others watching. I cannot recall having seen an adult intervene to stop another adult from violating community norms.

Most importantly \”Don\’t Sleep, There Are Snakes\”, tells of Everett\’s study of the Piraha language. He describes his struggle to understand their language, the differences he found between Piraha and other languages and his reevaluation of his own linguistic education.  I enjoyed reading about his struggle trying to figure out what these people were telling him, and his analysis of his own misconceptions.  His conclusions about the Piraha language run counter to the prevailing understanding of linguistics and have caused researchers to reevaluate beliefs about the relationship between language and culture.

I was fascinated by Everett’s eventual reevaluation of his own beliefs. This is a very honest book and a perfect  book for those interested in a very different way of life.

6 Comments

Filed under Review, Science Books 2009

Science Book Challenge 2009

sbc2009 What the hell, I’m going to read them anyway.   My favorite non-fiction books are science books!

At present I am reading lots of books on evolution, inspired by the fabulous exhibit of Lucy at the Pacific Science Center.  If Lucy ends up near you go and see her!

Leave a comment

Filed under Challenges, Science Books 2009