My 2010 Booklist Part 2 of 3: May-August

21 08 2010

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I hope that everyone had an enjoyable summer! Having finally returned from my long but entertaining pilgrimage to an internet-bereft region of the Adirondack mountains,  I’ve managed to at long last acquire an adequate chunk of time with which to update my oft-neglected blog! Given the aforementioned lack of my primary source of electronic entertainment, I was able to engage in an obscene amount of reading during this segment of this year’s literary trimester. And so, without further ado, I hereby present the second installment of my 2010 booklist. Enjoy!

Why Size Matters: From Bacteria To Blue Whales By John Tyler Bonner

My Thoughts: At a mere 7.5 inches in height and 176 pages in length, “Why Size Matters” is, amusingly (and somewhat ‘appropriately’), one of the smallest volumes to grace my bookshelves. Bonner has done an admirable job of explaining how an organism’s size affects everything from its physiology to its ecological role to its evolutionary pathways. Of particular interest are his sections concerning how size influences one’s voice, intelligence, and longevity. While his writing style is somewhat needlessly vague on occasion, it contains a delightful exuberance along with a reverence for philosophy and literary fantasy. On the whole, “Why Size Matters” is perfect for any scientifically curious bookworm in search of a light, but informative, read.

Swimming In Stone: The Amazing Gogo Fossils Of The Kimberley By John Long

My Thoughts: It’s damnably difficult to track down good popular science books about the Devonian! So I was naturally quite excited to have found this excellent diagnosis of one of the most vital and intriguing fossil localities on the planet: the Gogo site of the Western Australian Kimberley formation, home to some of the most amazing ichthyological organisms known to science. Long is one of the paleontological community’s leading fish experts, and his passion for these creatures shines through every word of his prose. Of particular interest is one of the book’s concluding chapters in which the author defends the idea that the vast majority of significant evolutionary breakthroughs which ultimately produced the tetrapod design with which we’re intimately well-acquainted occurred millions of years before the first land-dwelling vertebrates. Additionally, while a number of non-technical science books are erroneously cited as possessing a great sense of humor, “Swimming In Stone” actually delivers in this regard, sporting several genuinely funny passages which chronicle the author’s frequently bizarre experiences throughout his career, all of which congregate to paint a wonderful image of the sacrifices and rewards familiar to those who strive to dedicate their professional lives to paleontology and it is these individuals who I believe will enjoy this exquisite volume the most.

“Frozen Earth: The Once And Future Story Of Ice Ages” By Doug Macdougall

My Thoughts: “Frozen Earth” is a book which can perhaps best be termed “uneven”. It does an absolutely impeccable job of explaining the history of ice age climatology and the field’s pioneers, yet it doesn’t always satisfactorily explain the science’s underlying concepts and evidence to a lay reader such as myself. If paleoclimatology isn’t your forte, be prepared to re-read several important passages in order to ensure comprehension. However, during those occasions wherein Macdougall succueeds in his goal of disambiguating this complex information, he does so with the grace and intrigue of a truly masterful science communicator. Additionally, “Frozen Earth” contains the finest descriptions of the Permo-Carboniferous ice age and the Snowball Earth theory/controversy that I’ve ever come across in a popular science book and its discussion regarding the adverse effects of global warming upon our environment is not to be missed by anyone who cares about the planet and its inhabitants, including ourselves. Nevertheless, in overall retrospect, I simply wish that Macdougall had dispersed his descriptive powers more uniformly.

“How To Build A Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have To Be Forever” By Jack Horner & James Gorman

My Thoughts: “How To Build A Dinosaur” is a book which has been turning heads throughout the paleo-blogosphere since its initial publication last year, and for good reason. Though many reviewers, including yours truly, initially feared that Horner and Gorman’s latest literary escapade would prove itself to be little more than a compendium of pseudoscientific twaddle, it’s turned out to be no such thing. Instead, “How To Build A Dinosaur” is a concise, comprehensive, and quite readable introduction to “evo-devo” and the fledgling science of molecular paleontology. The piece de resistance, however, is the book’s excitingly plausible central thesis. This idea maintains that given the ancestry of modern birds from small, nonavian theropods, one could theoretically  isolate the developmental routes which emerge during embryonic growth and separate the former group’s gross anatomy from the latter’s. Just like their Mesozoic forebears, all present-day birds such as chickens begin to develop long tails early in their ontogeny. However, the accumulation of subsequent mutations during the course of their evolution has resulted in the acquisition of molecules which “switch off” the maturation of this tail, reducing it to the mere stub with which poultry farmers have long-since grown familiar.  Were the precise location of these deactivation molecules unearthed, their functionality could be neutralized, resulting in a chicken with an extensive tail. Similar measures could be taken to create chickens with clawed hands, toothed mouths, and scaly bodies. Ultimately, through this ingenious technique, a little creature nearly indistinguishable from a nonavian theropod could be brought into the world. Needless to say, I’ve elected to grant this volume my fullest endorsement, such as it is. A definite must-read!

“Snakehead: A Fish Out Of Water” by Eric Jay Dolin

My Thoughts: Those turning to “Snakehead”, a book dedicated to the public frenzy surrounding the 2002 discovery of a population of namesake Chinese fish scientifically known as Channa argus lurking about a secluded Maryland pond, in search of a quick biological read are bound to be amused but ultimately disappointed, for it’s most informative commentary is instead reserved for the mainstream media and its regrettable habit of instilling undue panic throughout the populace. While this is most assuredly an issue worthy of further discussion, Dolin tends to dwell upon journalistic irresponsibility at the expense of addressing the worldwide pandemic of invasive species: although his book has an irritating tendency to reprint articles, satirical sketches, political cartoons, and panel discussions about the 2002 C. argus infestation in their entirety without regard for redundancy, its prose dedicates a mere handful of pages in the introductory and concluding chapters to examining the larger issue at hand. Still, for those in search of a light-yet-evocative summer read, “Snakehead” is a good place to start.

“Zeno And The Tortoise: How To Think Like A Philosopher” by Nicholas Fearn

My Thoughts: “Zeno And The Tortoise” purports to be an introduction to philosophy equipped with a pronounced emphasis on developing an appreciation for the thought experiments and formulas created by the discipline’s greatest minds from ancient Greece to the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, however, Fearn has here succumbed to the widespread literary pathology of poorly executing an exquisite idea. This regrettable situation is chiefly the result of his vague and often impregnable prose which manages to inhibit clarity at nearly every turn: a style whose marriage to an explanatory book concerning a subject as complex and all-encompassing as philosophy spells disaster for the novice reader. Additionally, “Zeno And The Tortoise” gives virtually no mention of any sort to eastern philosophers and thus does a great dis-service for those attempting to widen their knowledge of this magnificent field on the global level. Nevertheless, Fearn’s individual chapters often serve as an impeccable review of philosophical concepts to those who had previously encountered their individual concepts: I, for example, was able to absorb his declarations concerning relativism, rationalism, utilitarianism, falsifiability, and the limitations of reasonable doubt with comparative ease, given my prior exposure to all five notions elsewhere. The book’s greatest asset to the completely clueless reader (or partially clueless reader such as myself), however, is unquestionably its “Further Reading” section which prescribes a handful of external sources through which one might obtain additional information about each chapter’s content at length. This segment notwithstanding, “Zeno And The Tortoise” should be viewed as a study guide for dedicated students of philosophy rather than a venue through which beginners may gain exposure to its various teachings.

“Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads In The Web Of Life” by Scott D. Sampson 

My Thoughts: Despite this blog’s well-documented bias towards Cenozoic mammals, my initial fascination with the field of paleontology was, as with many of its other enthusiasts,  initially sparked by an impassioned love of dinosaurs which persists unhindered to this day. “Dinosaur Odyssey” is a book which captures the essence of this infatuation by expressing a reverence for the romanticism of these incredible beasts throughout an easygoing venture into the remarkable and frequently humbling discoveries of their study. The explanatory power of each chapter’s analysis into a plethora of such  intricate paleontological, ecological, and evolutionary topics concerning this most remarkable group as their emergence, predator/prey relationships, metabolic rates, sexual displays, and near-extinction  is rivaled only by its exuberance and ardor. Furthermore, Sampson’s concluding segment about why paleontological science matters should be considered an absolute must-read for anyone who professes to care about the discipline and its future. “Dinosaur Odyssey” is that rarest of books which I can honestly recommend to everyone ranging from those in possession of so much as a hint of interest in dinosaurian paleontology to the discipline’s seasoned veterans and practitioners.

“A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here And There” by Aldo Leopold

My Thoughts: Last February, I reprinted Aldo Leopold’s “On A Monument To A Pigeon”: a humbling and awe-inspiring essay concerning the philosophical implications of the passenger pigeon’s (Ectopistes migratorius) infamous extinction at our hands during the late eighteenth and very early nineteenth centuries. The exquisite nature of its prose and arguments inspired me to seek out “A Sand County Almanac”: a congregation of several dozen such ecological and environmental essays which homogeneously maintain an underlying philosophy of reverence and appreciation for the natural world and our fellow inhabitants therein. Of particular intrigue are “January Thaw”, “Thinking Like A Mountain”, and “The Land Ethic” for their magnificent exemplification of this worldview. My only true criticism of “A Sand County Almanac” stems from no fault of Leopold’s but rather its posthumous publication. Due to the fact that these essays were compiled merely a year after the death of their author, they’ve been subjected to little if any editorial supervision, which enables the book’s content to grow redundant when read from cover to cover. However, this is but a microscopic blemish upon the face of a truly epic volume whose effects upon the American conservationist movement rival those of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in proportion and durability.

“The Second Bill Of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution And Why We Need It Now More Than Ever” by Cass R. Sunstein

My Thoughts: In the words of Lester Ward, “Those who denounce state intervention are the ones who most frequently and successfully invoke it. The cry of lassiez faire mainly goes up from the ones who, if really ‘let alone’, would instantly lose their wealth-absorbing power”. This most divisive of contentions is  magnificently defended by Sunstein, an eminent constitutional scholar and historian. “The Second Bill Of Rights” was the informal name bestowed upon a series of, in Sunstein’s words, “constitutive commitments” (that is, ideals protected by the day’s prevailing interpretation of the nation’s constitution rather than the document itself) designed to domestically heed FDR’s famous observation that “freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want”. In other words, if America were to avoid descending into a pitifully uneven state that could easily fall prey to the likes of totalitarian forces such as those which had previously swept Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia,  Roosevelt maintained that every citizen must be guaranteed an additional set of “unalienable rights”, such as the right to adequate medical care, a decent home, and a good education among others. Sunstein also examines the international effects of this second bill and reveals beyond any doubt that those countries which incorporate its essence into their political landscape are currently far better off than its nation of origin. 

“The Making Of The Fittest: DNA And The Ultimate Forensic Record Of Evolution” By Sean B. Carroll

My Thoughts: Much ado has been made about Sean Caroll’s highly readable writing style and for good reason: in “The Making Of The Fittest”, he effortlessly guides the reader through such notoriously complex evolutionary topics as endosymbiosis, evo- devo, and gene fossilization. Furthermore, while most authors of such introductory popular science texts tend to shy away from examining their field’s most unusual constituents in the fear that their added complexity would thwart the progress of the reader’s emerging comprehension, Caroll highlights a plethora of bizarre and thoroughly engaging biological nonconformists to the delight and awe of the enthusiast and layman alike. Furthermore, in a scathing and unapologetic chapter towards the book’s conclusion that can only be described as a work of sheer brilliance, the licentious and decietful tactics of “Intelligent Design” proponents are brutally unmasked. Whether you’re an evolutionary devotee or a  curious non-expert, “The Making Of The Fittest” is sure to both enlighten and entertain.

“Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, And Praying To Going To War And Becoming A Bilionaire–Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do” by Alan S. Miller & Satoshi Kanazawa

My Thoughts: Since it’s earliest exposure to the general public via Darwin’s “The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex”, the field of evolutionary psychology (aka: “E.P.”) has maintained the dubious honor of arguably being the most controversial subdiscipline of any scientific domain for nearly a century and a half, having managed to simultaneously divide the general public and scientific community throughout this time.  In “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters” Miller and Kanazawa do an impeccable job of forcing the reader to understand that E.P.’s routine political incorrectness is merely an examination of the way things are and not necessarily the way they ought to be. However, the authors are far more careless with regards to the headings given to various segments of discussion: for instance, their twin declarations that “human nature… stopped evolving 10,000 years ago” and “our brains are stuck in the stone age”, while not entirely devoid of truth, are misleading and frankly somewhat reckless. Fortunately, what Miller and Kanazawa lack in diplomacy is made up for in fairness: these men certainly aren’t shy about the limitations of evolutionary psychology despite their shared passion for the subject, and this willingness to acknowledge the young demesne’s imperfections alongside its achievements and contributions is most admirable.  

“A Confederacy Of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

My Thoughts: Although I don’t read fiction with the frequency of the average bibliophile, my comparatively limited exposure to the art form has nonetheless instilled within me a conviction that its most interesting characters are invariably those which the audience “loves to hate”. In this sense, I’ve yet to encounter a literary figure more captivating than “A Confederacy Of Dunces”s protagonist: one Ignatius J. Reily. While the routinely deplorable escapades of this verbose, malodorous, lackadaisical, delusional, pompous, gluttonous, discourteous, self-righteous, anachronistic, hideously clad, and morbidly obese medievalist should ideally repulse the reader,  the extravagant outlandishness with which he executes such mundane activities as job-hunting and moviegoing is positively endearing. While Reily is unquestionably the novel’s star attraction, Toole’s supporting cast is miraculously devoid of virtually any character which could be truthfully cited as “stereotypical”, and these eccentrics bounce flawlessly bounce off each other to create a beautifully unorthodox plot beneath this satirical masterpiece.

“Four Reasonable Men: Marcus Aurelius, John Stuart Mill, Ernest Renan, Henry Sidgwick” by Brand Blanshard

My Thoughts: In this delightfully original and (for the most part) brilliantly executed narrative, the reader is presented with a quartet of miniature biographies about four men whom he believes to have been “great for the same reason, the government of their lives by a quiet, habitual reasonableness.” In Blanshard’s view, reasonableness is defined as the possession of such admirable (and, as Renan often noted in a secular sense, “Christlike”) qualities as discipline, restraint, fairness, tact, open-mindedness, and respect for one’s opponents. While “Four Reasonable Men” does an impeccable job of explaining why all of its subjects deserve to be cited as possessors of these most honorable traits,  it does harbor a tendency to make relatively bold declarations concerning each man’s character and values without adequately reinforcing these contentions. Fortunately, however, the offending passages are relatively rare and fail to detract from Blanshard’s ingenious approach to enriching life and addressing the ethical concerns of the human condition itself.

“A Sea Without Fish: Life In The Ordovician Sea Of The Cincinnati Region” by David L. Meyer & Richard Arnold Davis

My Thoughts: Despite my lifelong captivation with vertebrate paleontology, I must admit that the sister science of invertebrate paleontology isn’t nearly as engaging in my view. This fact largely stems from the latter discipline’s comparative disregard for functional morphology in favor of stratigraphy: while both are highly relevant fields to each study, I simply find the former to be immeasurably more interesting. Consequently, I had essentially assumed that “A Sea Without Fish” would conform to the general trend of emphasizing the geological aspects of its spineless subjects over their physiological and ecological makeup. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised, for Meyer and Davis have balanced both topics seamlessly to provide a thorough and captivating analysis of the Cincinnati region’s world-famous Ordovician denizens in what is perhaps the finest example of a regional paleontology book I’ve ever come across. Of particular interest are the book’s chapters concerning mollusks, echinoderms, and arthropods.

Rest assured, loyal readers: more scientific posts are on their way!

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