Category Archives: Science

Curiosity…

At a time when there is so much darkness all around us it is great to see what human intelligence and ingenuity can accomplish.  A video mash-up of the landing viewed by team at JPL and the computer simulation of the “7 Minutes of Terror”.   This is the stuff we are really good at.  Let’s do more of it.

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Filed under Astronomy, NASA, Science

Pursuit of Light

The newest video from NASA.  Watch it in fullscreen.  I wish our government would increase NASA’s funding instead of cutting it.  By the way, there is a “super” full moon on May 5th.  Go out and look at it if you get a chance.

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Filed under Astronomy, Cosmology, Science, Video

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

Harper Collins, New York, 2010

From my library hold list.  I have Vasilly to thank for this one.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!

From the epigraph:

With apologies to Marie Curie, who said,

“There is no connection between my scientific work and facts of  private life.”

A biography told through words and pictures.  A history of the discovery of radioactivity and the development of the atomic bomb.  The story of a woman, her loves and her scientific curiosity.

I love it when an author truly admires her subject.  Lauren Redniss has created a work of art that is also a wonderful biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, and of Marie after her husband’s death.    Much of the text comes from the Curie archives, from scientific papers and from the press.

Mixed in with this biography are  pieces on the impact the discovery of radioactivity has had on culture, science, medicine and politics.  It is a book about what scientists thought they knew, on how that knowledge can affect society in ways that are creative and destructive.  And Redniss’s art reflects this.

Colors bloom out of darkness with a strange glow.  Tall ghostly figures are interspersed with maps of contaminated landscape.  Redniss as created a science book unlike any I have ever read.  Even if you have no love for the graphic genre I suggest you read it.

Other reviews:

1330v

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Filed under Biography, Graphic Novels, Science, Science Book Challenge 2012, Thoughts

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Vintage Books, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.

One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost.  From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost.  Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.

Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.

You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds?  The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification.  You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe.  Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc.  Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features.  In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.

I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it.  The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it.  You don’t.  Sometimes all you have is a single datum.  The name.  In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.  From page 39.

This is  nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries.  It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours.  It is a place  shared with a multitude of other creatures.  If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them

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Filed under Birds, Corvids, Natural History, Review, Science, TBR Double Dare

Monster of God by David Quammen

Monster of God: The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind by David Quammen

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003

Borrowed from my local library.

A wonderful book by one of my favorite science science writers.  Quammen has given us an in-depth report on a  great struggle in human history.  What do humans do when they find themselves becoming prey and how do we learn to live with those animals who, like us, find themselves at the top of the food web?

…For as long as Homo Sapiens has been sentient-for much longer if you count the evolutionary wisdom stored in our genes-alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world.  They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we’re just another flavor of meat…

…While we humans may be the most reflective members of the natural world, we’re not (in my view, anyway) its divinely appointed proprietors.  Nor are we the culmination of evolution, except in the sense that there has never been another species so bizarrely ingenious that it could create both iambic pentameter and plutonium.  (from page 13)

By focusing on four top predators, visiting their home territory and interviewing local scientists, hunters and others about  human contact with those predators, the author reminds us of things we may have forgotten.  What it is like to live in a place where we fear being attacked, injured and possible eaten by the animals that live around us.  How have people managed to live in balance with those animals?  How can we insure their survival as more and more of their territory is destroyed by our need for control?

Asiatic Lions that manage to survive in a tiny area of Western India, Salt water crocodiles in Australia,  Brown Bears in Romania and the Amur Tiger in the wilds of Eastern Russia are featured in a book that blends the history, biology, politics and culture of human-big predator interaction.  One of my favorite parts is Quamman’s explanation  of human exploration and colonization, the “taming of the wilderness”.

     Achieving military victory over the indigenous tribes, whoever they are, is sometimes the easiest part of the whole process.  The land itself, the ecosystem, must be defeated too – or so the invaders think.  The foreign wilderness must be mastered, made tractable, if not utterly subdued and transformed.  That requires, at the lower end of the size scale, coping with pestiferous local microbes and parasites, which sometimes present the fiercest resistance of all.  Malaria certainly slowed the white conquest of Africa.  At the upper end of the scale it means rooting out those big flesh-eating beasts that rule the woods and the rivers and the swamps, that offer moral peril to the unwary, and that hold pivotal significance within the belief systems of the natives.  Kill off the sacred bear.  Kill off the ancestral crocodile.  Kill off the myth-wrapped tiger.  Kill off the lion.  You haven’t conquered a people and their place, until you’ve exterminated their resident monsters. (From page 254)

Another thing I enjoyed about Monster of God was the author’s inclusion of religion and mythology.  All of those monster stories, all of the tales of heroes conquering ravenous beasts and fire-breathing serpents came from somewhere.

Anzu, as know from Babylonian poetry, was a furious lion-headed eagle.  Polyphemus, son of sea god Poseidon, was the cyclops who ate several of Odysseus’ men, scarfed them like shucked crawfish, before Odysseus paid him back with that archetypical affliction, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  The Chimera was a fire-snorting goat-lion-snake.  The Sphinx was a sadistic woman-faced lion, who devoured people after teasing them with her stupid riddle.  The Labbu, another formidable Babylonian monster, was 630 miles long, with huge eyelids.  It’s high protein diet included fish, wild asses, birds and people, until Tishpak or some other heroic intervener (the sources are patchy) vanquished it.  The original meaning of the word labbu, by the way, was lion.  (from page 262)

I love this stuff.  And I appreciate the author’s sense of humor when dealing with an issue that have terrified humans since before we stood upright.  Monster of God is a joy to read  and a sobering reminder of our place in the world.

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Nonfiction, Science

Science Book Challenge 2011

This challenge has been a favorite of mine over the last few years.  Some how I lost track of it but, thanks to Raidergirl, I’m signing up again.

Organized by Scienticity, the forth annual Science Book Challenge is easy, particularly if you are a fan of nonfiction.  All you need to do is read 3 nonfiction books related to the theme “Science & Culture”.  You can find all the information you need here, or if you are on Facebook you can join the Challenge here.

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Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Tresholds by James Hamilton-Patterson

Seven Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds

by James Hamilton-Patterson

Europa Editions, New York,  2009

Borrowed from the library.

I first read James Hamilton-Patterson in Granta, one of my few literary indulgences.   It was years ago, an article about the sea and it stayed with me.  When I saw this book on the “New Book” shelf at the library I had to grab it.  Since reading it I have purchased my own copy.

First published in 1992, Seven Tenths is a survey of the ocean world written by someone who treasures it and who has spent years exploring its depths.   Beautifully written, it is a  mix of poetry and science, fact and myth, filled with superb imagery.

It was whale song which mariners heard filtering through their vessels’ resonant wooden hulls and which they took for Sirens’ voices, beckoning them to disaster..  To have lain in one’s bunk at night and heard on the other side of a few inches of oak and copper sheathing those directionless, distanceless cries must have been to feel the chill of utter melancholy and dissolution–also to have felt one’s nakedness.  This is the effect of listening to reef sounds at night, too.  It is more that just the nakedness of wearing next to nothing, and it is more than vulnerability.  It is the sensation of animal messages passing through one as if, being seven-tenths water, one’s body were transparent.  From page 138.

Broken into sections, it speaks of  measurement and control, mysterious islands, unknown boundaries and the deep.  Each section contains stories of our misconceptions about the oceans,  about our fears and our need to understand the unknowable.  It is filled with unusual facts and the interesting people who work on and under the sea.   Hamilton-Patterson writes with joyous excitement and great love.

That night I go to bed with my head full of marvels.  In the course of the evening I also learned that the sea levels at either end of the Panama Canal are different by nearly half a meter, and the same went for the sea on either side of the Florida Peninsula.  This was caused by such things as the heaping effect of the wind and the Coriolis force.  But I am most captivated by the idea of the earth’s crust vibrating at an ascertainable frequency since it could theoretically be possible to calculate the precise note.  True, it probably would not be a pure tone because there would be all sorts of harmonic interference from irregularities such as mountain ranges.  Yet, it ought to be possible to determine the fundamental note of the planet, the music of our spheroid.  From page 33.

I have never seen phosphorescence as bright as on that night.  Leaning over the edge of the bangka I could follow every move of the searchers below.  Only, the whirligigs of sparks, the flashings and showers of cold fire were at depths which could not be determined.  Just as the glints and refractions in the best opals can appear deeper than the thickness of the stone itself or else closer than its surface, so the divers movements excited discharges of light which were either a few feet away or in a universe beyond.  It was vertiginous to gaze down because the view was more what one normally expected to see overhead.  On nights as dark as that, it is always hard to define the horizon, to separate black sky from black sea.  From page 325.

All of these sections are bound together by the description of a swimmer lost at sea.  This description expresses the feelings of fear, loss, loneliness and wonder felt by a person floating in the middle of the ocean.

I found myself awestruck reading about our historic misunderstanding of the sea’s great depths, and our desire to make sense of it.  The very human need to mark and measure, to claim some mastery, and if we couldn’t master it to at least have some semblance of control.  I could go on quoting passages of fine text for pages and pages.

Hamilton-Patterson has written a meditation on the sea, and a warning to all those who seek economic and political gain from these waters.  There are descriptions of the mapping of Economic Enterprise Zones around islands and continents, the destruction of a small Indonesian island for the enjoyment of wealthy tourists and the rampant overfishing by factory trawlers.  This is a study of  human effects and, in this time of oil spills and acidification, I am glad that Europa has chosen to republish it.

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Filed under Earth, IYOBChallenge, Ocean, Review, Science, Science Books 2010

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation

by Michael Keller, Illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller

Rodale, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

Published during the 150th anniversary year of the publication of On the Origin of Species, this book is a beautiful presentation of some of the strongest parts of Darwin’s argument for the evolution of species and his theory of natural selection. The beginning of the book gives some  historical and biographical information on Darwin’s background and his introduction to scientific observation. Text from Darwin’s work is woven through the stunning illustrations and Keller has made every effort to update Darwin’s ideas with our present understanding of how life evolves.

Fuller’s illustrations are beautiful and add to a basic understanding of a scientific theory that changed western science, culture and religious belief.  Having read parts of The Voyage of The Beagle and studied some of Origin in an evolutionary biology class,  I found this book a wonderful introduction to Darwin’s theory.

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Filed under Graphic Novel Challenge 2010, Graphic Novels, Science, Science Books 2010

The Collectors of Lost Souls by Warwick Anderson

The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen

By Warwick Anderson

John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008

Bought a used copy.

Those of you who have visited this blog in the past may know I have a love of anthropology and a love of science.  This intriguing book fills the bill on both counts.

It is the story of the Fore, a group of people who live in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the mysterious disease that affected their villages. When white people first met the Fore in the 1930’s and 40’s,  they found them suffering from an illness that caused muscle weakness, tremors, lack of coordination and eventually death.  They also discovered that the Fore eat their dead as a sign of respect and that they believe in sorcery. It was mainly women and children who were ill and the Fore attributed this frightening, wasting sickness to very evil magic.  They call it Kuru.

Warwick Anderson, a medical doctor and science historian,  through years of research, travel and interviews with Fore people, medical researchers, anthropologists and others,  brings together all the different elements of the study of Kuru, that includes cultural anthropology, virology, epidemiology, colonial history and leads to the science of medical anthropology and to questions of medical ethics.  He follows the research of many anthropologists and epidemiologists and tells of their discovery  that, by eating their loved ones after death, the Fore where actually spreading the disease.  All this research, and the many scientists taking part in the study,  lead to the idea of a  “slow virus” and eventually to the discovery of Prions, the same biological cells that spread  “Mad Cow'” disease.

This book is also a record of the Fore, a previously isolated people, and how they made contact and adapted to the world by engaging with scientists, researchers and administrators.  How they struggled to make the meeting of the modern and the “primitive” something other than the usual colonial process.  How, once they realized that their blood and flesh was of value to modern science, they began to demand to be part of the undertaking.

We might also learn from the Fore how to understand the social dynamics of global science.  Kuru research occurred in the shadow of World War II and on the edges of the cold war.  It took place a scientific institutions flourished in advanced settler societies such as the United States and Australia, extending their reach into “primitive” colonies like Papua and New Guinea.  The traffic in specimens, equipment, reagents, and texts linked laboratories in large metropolitan centers with bush huts where autopsies were performed and tissues prepared.  Scientists came and went between these diverse sites, becoming cosmopolitan as they made their careers.  Parts of the Fore circulated, too, turned into globally available specimens.  Fore thus became medicalized even as they were first colonized.  They found themselves caught up at this striking conjunction, though never completely subsumed in it.  Rehearsed at a multitude of local sites, yet performed as though on a global stage, kuru research dramatized claims and contest over territory, bodies, and persons.  It shows us hoe science travels in the modern world and what it does when it arrives…

Anderson gives everyone, scientists, researchers and Fore alike, a say in the story.  He also exposes the moral and ethic dilemmas  involved with this type of medical research.  Who owns the findings?  The researchers, the biomedical companies or the people who donated their blood and bodies to the study of this disease?  It is a very important question as we delve deeper into the human body and its genetic makeup.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Science, Science Books 2010

The Tree: A Natural History by Colin Tudge

The Tree: A Natural History of  What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge

Three Rivers Press, New York, 2005

I own this one.

I have a thing about trees.  I climbed them as a child and wanted to live in one particular Dogwood that stood outside my bedroom window.  I can’t help touching them when I walk by them.  I sit under them, listening to them,  almost becoming part of them.  Once, in the Redwoods of California, I felt the redwoods were so angry at us humans that I had to leave, hanging my head in shame.

Weird, I know, but I feel like Colin Tudge and I would understand each other.

Colin Tudge has written a book that is wordy and at times it grew tedious.  It includes so much information about trees that I had to take it in small bits.  I am still reading about our future with trees if, in fact, we have one.  It is a book I will keep close at hand.

Tudge covers what trees are, the kinds of plants they evolved from and how scientists attempt to differentiate species.  His approach is deeply scientific but also reverent in a way that is spiritual.  I understand this, and appreciate it.  Humans would not be here without  these  amazingly diverse and important members of the living world.  We must learn to value their presence instead of considering them just an economic resource or something that stands in the way of agriculture or development.

Coast Redwood

Cherry Trees on the farm.

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Filed under Earth, IYOBChallenge, Nature, Science