Science, Dinosaurs & Environmental Issues

STORIES IN STONE: Travels Through Urban Geology
DAVID B. WILLIAMS

University of Washington Press
$24.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Most people do not think to look for geology from the sidewalks of a major city, but for David B. Williams any rock used as building material can tell a fascinating story. All he has to do is look at building stone in any urban center to find a range of rocks equal to any assembled by plate tectonics. In Stories in Stone, he takes you on his explorations to find 3.5-billion-year-old rock that looks like swirled pink and black taffy, a gas station made of petrified wood, and a Florida fort that has withstood 300 years of attacks and hurricanes, despite being made of a stone that has the consistency of a granola bar.


In Stories in Stone, Williams also weaves in the cultural history of stone. He shows why a white, fossil-rich limestone from Indiana became the only building stone to be used in all 50 states; how in 1825, the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument led to America's first commercial railroad; and why when the same kind of marble used by Michelangelo was used on a Chicago skyscraper it warped so much after 19 years that all 44,000 panels of the stone had to be replaced. A love letter to building stone, from New England brownstone and Morton Gneiss of Minnesota to the limestone of Salem, Indiana; from granite and travertine to Carrara marble, David Williams brings to life the stones you will see in the structures of every city, large and small. After reading his book, you will forever look at stone buildings with new eyes.

I BORROWED THIS BOOK FROM MY LOCAL LIBRARY. SUPPORT YOUR LIBRARIES!

My Review
: I like pop science books a lot. I enjoy learning about things I've either avoided in the past or simply never thought thing one about. This subject is one of the latter.

Williams has an extra-interesting (to me) chapter on brownstone(s)...as I'm a few miles from Brooklyn, and a former resident of a brownstone-clad building in Manhattan, I've seen a lot of stuff about them. I've noticed, for example, a fact that Williams explores at some length...the rotten condition of a lot of brownstone facades...and always thought, "whatinahell made people use this stuff?! It's ugly and it's fragile!" Well, Mr. Williams goes into the bad-condition part (cheap construction) and even comments on the changes that took place in attitudes towards the stone. Originally the brownstone wasn't thought highly of by the cognoscenti of the day, being drab and uniform and indicative of a certain bourgeois striving that the haut ton has always smirkingly dismissed. Then it came to be seen as charming, for some damn reason, and now it seems that we're heading back into condescension. Fashion...plus ca change....

Granite, my personal favorite stone, gets a lot of play in this book, and I learned a great deal about its genesis and its manifold strengths. I lived in a part of Texas that is a big ol' granite shelf with dead coral reefs atop it (the Hill Country), whence cometh a lovely pink granite.

I think books like this offer a very useful meditation on the world around us. A built environment is every bit as complex and interesting and worthy of quiet contemplation as a natural environment is, and too few people afford the built environment more than a disparaging glance. It's foolish to think that a state of nature has more inherent interest than humanity's considered labors. Why should we humans dismiss the fruits of our labors? Why not appreciate both for their different strengths?

I don't think Williams exactly meant to bring this idea to the fore, but it's the first thing that sprang to my mind. I'd recommend the book more highly, but the author isn't a prose stylist of any great note. He's solid and informative and able to convey a sense of his pleasure in the stones we build our life-caves from, but his words take flight exactly never and I see that as a demerit. I'd like for people who *don't* like science to read the book. It's worth your while because you'll get a small sense of what science does...explain the universe to us in useful and interesting ways.

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IN THE JAPANESE GARDEN
ELIZABETH BIBB (photos by Michael Yamashita)

out of print; available at all online booksellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Celebrates the elegant 1,300-year-old art form of Japanese gardening, providing gardeners with the basic concepts for including aspects of the Japanese garden in their own landscape plans.

My Review: This book was such a joy to find, to buy, to read...it has been a perfect experience. It's the Fulcrum Publishing edition in paperback of a book done by Starwood in 1991. As it's a paperback, my local Salvation Armani charged me 49 cents for it. It's in *perfect* condition. Rapture!

Then there is the gorgeousness of the book...photographs that are almost lit from within, they are so lovely. The printing job is adequate, but a little heavy on the cyan, making all the blues intense but the greens a little squishy. Very, very small quibble.

Above all else, though, is the subject matter...the gardens...the aesthetic of accepting nature's gifts of color, shape, and form, and designing the living landscape to make every angle and vista a reflection of this aesthetic, inviting meditation on the nature of life's seasons and the seasons of life...well. It is a restorative draught for my wearied, nibbled-at soul.

The Shinto spirituality of the gardens is not neglected in Ms. Bibb's essays on the gardens and their various histories. It is telling that the origins of this most Japanese-identified of landscaping modalities is a direct lift by the ancient Japanese from Chinese culture's gardening traditions. The borrowing went on until the 18th century, in fact, with the Ming/Qing garden trend that emphasized greenery and stonery at the expense of Western gardening's obsession with blooming things. It is one reason I so love Japanese gardens: they are not awash in messy, purposeless FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER plant FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER stuff.

I would recommend this book to anyone who feels hemmed in, pecked at, torn, or simply needs a respite from daily life. The book is presently out of print, but copies are well worth searching up!

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THE VIEW FROM LAZY POINT: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World
Carl Safina

John MacRae/Henry Holt
$32.00 hardcover (!!), available now

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: Beginning in his kayak in his home waters of eastern Long Island, Carl Safina's The View from Lazy Point takes us through the four seasons to the four points of the compass, from the high Arctic south to Antarctica, across the warm belly of the tropics from the Caribbean to the west Pacific, then home again. We meet Eskimos whose way of life is melting away, explore a secret global seed vault hidden above the Arctic Circle, investigate dilemmas facing foraging bears and breeding penguins, and sail to formerly devastated reefs that are resurrecting as fish graze the corals algae-free.

"Each time science tightens a coil in the slack of our understanding," Safina writes, "it elaborates its fundamental discovery: connection."

He shows how problems of the environment drive very real matters of human justice, well-being, and our prospects for peace.

In Safina's hands, nature's continuous renewal points toward our future. His lively stories grant new insights into how our world is changing, and what our response ought to be.

My Review: Carl Safina is an August Personage. He's a Guggenheim Fellow. He's a MacArthur Fellow. He's won at least two awards for literary merit in writing about science. He founded Blue Ocean Institute. He's been on the teevee, too! PBS, even Nightline! Here he chronicles the full twelve months of his year of environmental activism and study for our delectation and enlightenment.

I am not delectated and not particularly enlightened, and if I didn't owe a review to the publisher, I'd just quietly pass this dull, overwritten snoozefest to someone who's never read Silent Spring and therefore has no basis for comparison re: quality advocacy writing with a personal touch.

A note to editors: Capitalizing Species Names Is Like Having Your Eyelashes Plucked. It Starts Out Annoying But Ends Up Inducing Homicidal Feelings Towards The Perpetrator. A cedar waxwing is a cedar waxwing, not A Cedar Waxwing.


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HOW TO BUILD AN ANDROID: The True Story of Philip K. Dick's Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In late January 2006, a young robotocist on the way to Google headquarters lost an overnight bag on a flight somewhere between Dallas and Las Vegas. In it was a fully functional head of the android replica of Philip K. Dick, cult science-fiction writer and counterculture guru. It has never been recovered.

In a story that echoes some of the most paranoid fantasies of a Dick novel, readers get a fascinating inside look at the scientists and technology that made this amazing android possible. The author, who was a fellow researcher at the University of Memphis Institute of Intelligent Systems while the android was being built, introduces readers to the cutting-edge technology in robotics, artificial intelligence, and sculpture that came together in this remarkable machine and captured the imagination of scientists, artists, and science-fiction fans alike. And there are great stories about Dick himself—his inspired yet deeply pessimistic worldview, his bizarre lifestyle, and his enduring creative legacy. In the tradition of popular science classics like Packing for Mars and The Disappearing Spoon, How to Build an Android is entertaining and informative—popular science at its best.

My Review: ANOTHER year-old LibraryThing Early Reviewers win! Oh the shame, the shame!

If you don't know who Philip K. Dick is, well first of all what are you doing being friends with me, and second, this book will read like a novel whose main joke is about something you don't understand. Like "ain't nobody got time for that" if you've never seen the memes.

I read this book with a sort of befuddled sensation. I liked it, I even thought young Dufty was a decent prose stylist. But, I kept wondering, why on earth does this book need to exist? Twenty-six United States dollars for a 250-page exploration of the whys and wherefores of an android that no longer exists, can't be seen and therefore exists only in descriptions such as this that will make more sense to geeks than to thee and me. (Well, me anyway.)

Dick casts a long shadow in our world, Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall being among the movies made from his bleak, unsettlingly predictive fiction. He was a weird man, he wrote weird books, and thought strange thoughts that were way far out in front of the culture. Pretty much nailed it, though, did our Phil. It makes reading his work strangely current.

But here, Dufty (who was a bit player at best and a bystander if we're honest) tells of the obsessive fascination Dick has for the seriously geeky boffins who spend their paid work hours trying to make SF in to reality. It is astonishing to me that they get paychecks for doing this stuff. They'd do it for free, sleep in the office and eat Cheetos and hot dogs, you just know they would so long as the parts bin is open and the computers come on when they need them. It's a slightly disturbing sensation to watch the boys (all males, natch) play in the sandbox and create something so (apparently, it's vanished so you and I will never know) lifelike because they just want to.

I am interested in the way our material culture is manipulated and massaged and transformed by science's application to technology. If you are too, this book will keep the pages turning. If you're a Dickian cultist, this book will make for some riveting reading. Absent those interests, there are better ways to spend your eyeblinks and your spondulix.

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HEALING AT THE SPEED OF SOUND: How What We Hear Transforms Our Brains and Our Lives
Don Campbell and Alex Doman

Hudson Street Press
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The bestselling author of The Mozart Effect taps cutting-edge science to show how we can use sound to improve our lives and achieve our goals.

Based on over a decade of new research, Don Campbell and Alex Doman, an expert in the practical application of sound and listening, show how we can use music--and silence--to become more efficient, productive, relaxed, and healthy.

Each chapter focuses on a single aspect of everyday life, providing advice, exercises, wide-ranging playlists, and links so readers can use the music they love to create the perfect soundtrack for any goal or task. Also included are "Sound Profiles"--brief stories showing how real people creatively tap the power of sound to improve their own and others' lives.

Inspiring, practical, and truly enjoyable, Healing at the Speed of Sound opens the door to a fuller, richer, and much more harmonious life.

My Review: The authors are both sound guys. They have written a book together that unifies the research each has done over the years into the role that sound plays in the brain's processing of information and also the role that sound's brain effects play in the good physical and mental health of each one of us.

Campbell's 1997 book The Mozart Effect was an early overview of the then-emerging science of the brain's response to sound. Doman founded a company called Advanced Brain Technologies to apply the science Campbell discussed to everyday issues and problems.

This is the perfect book to read on a NooKindlEreader, because the text is loaded with free sound downloads and links to various resources that us tree-book readers must tediously and laboriously type into our home computing devices to share, not simply tappy-tappy-tap to appreciate in real time.

So, well, ummm. Not a prose stylist's exercise book, this one, though by no means is it incompetently executed. It's an informative book, the information is presented clearly and concisely, and there is nothing at all that's not footnoted, linked (seventy-six of them!), or backed up.

But oh my goddesses how desperately I longed for a well-turned sentence, or a metaphorical flourish that was even slightly surprising, or just a laugh. The authors, worthy and serious men, are short on humor in this book. Earnest is, I believe, the mot juste for their presentation, and while that's not at all inappropriate, it wore on me. I dreaded coming back to the book, not because I wasn't interested in their subject...quite the contrary!...but because it was like sitting down with a guy who looks like Brad Pitt and talks like Stephen Hawking.

Recommended? Sort of? But to those who are in need of its mother lode of information about the brain's sound universe, and how manipulating that can create much-desired changes in a person's daily life. Casually curious readers are best off skimming a bit in the bookstore and then deciding how much they want to pursue the topic. Perhaps a visit to the book's website would be a better choice for those readers.

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THE GILDED DINOSAUR: The Fossil War Between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh and the Rise of American Science
Mark Jaffe

Crown
out of print

Rating: 4.125* of five

The Publisher Says: It was an age of counterfeit giants, avaricious robber barons, corrupt politicians, intrepid pioneers, fierce Indian chiefs, and dinosaurs. The second half of the nineteenth century -- the so-called Gilded Age -- was a time when Americans were exploring the West and building a nation that would stretch from coast to coast.

It was also a time of scientific ferment. Charles Darwin had shaken the very foundations of Victorian society with his theory of evolution by natural selection, and scientists across the civilized world were locked in a great battle over Darwin's idea. While the debate raged in Europe, the hunt for hard evidence increasingly focused on the American West, with its grand mesas, buttes, and badlands. "We must turn to the New World if we wish to see in perfection the oldest monuments of earth's history," advised Sir Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, after a visit to America. "Certainly in no other country are these ancient strata developed on a grander scale or more plentifully charged with fossils."

Could the answer to the history of life and the proof of evolution be found in those fossils? That was the question that two young American paleontologists--Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh--set out to answer. But what began as a friendly contest quickly turned into bitter rivalry that would spill over into American science and politics and rage relentlessly for nearly three decades.

Cope and Marsh would battle on the prairies, in the halls of Congress, in science journals, and in the popular press. Both wealthy men, they launched lavish, western expeditions and raced across the plains and mountains searching for the remains of the magnificent beasts that once inhabited the continent. Along the way they would encounter George Custer, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill, and Red Cloud.

Among the most remarkable fossil discoveries of Cope and Marsh are a bevy of dinosaurs, including some of the best known beasts -- the Triceratops, the Stegosaurus, the Camarasaurus, and the Brontosaurus. Even today, Marsh holds the record for dinosaur discoveries.

Just as valuable, however, were some of Marsh's discoveries of ancient mammals and birds that provided the first real proof of Darwin's theory--"The best support for the theory in twenty years," the great Darwin himself proclaimed.

The tale of Cope and Marsh is also the story of the rise of American science. When their story begins just after the Civil War, America was an intellectual backwater, with eminent scientists snookered by the great, fake stone statue The Cardiff Giant--a hoax unmasked by Marsh.

But even as Cope and Marsh waged war, they both fought to build up American science and its scientific institutions. Yet despite their discoveries and their Gilded Age celebrity, the names of Cope and Marsh have faded into the recesses of the library and archive. In The Gilded Dinosaur Mark Jaffe exhumes from those archives the notes, journals, and letters of Cope and Marsh to reanimate and retell one of the keenest rivalries in the history of science.

My Review: Ah, science. You successor to religion as a means of explaining everyday life's many and various mysteries. You pretender to the Throne of God in your assertions of omniscience and omnipotence. You silly, arrogant adolescent brat! I love you no matter what, just like I do my kid.

Science in the 1840s, when this book begins to trace its protagonists's courses through life in earnest, had fewer stagnant backwaters more rank and turgid than our own USA. Germany, France, England! The Big Three! The Commanders of the Heights looked down on us rude mechanicals in the all-too-recently Colonies and viewed Harvard and Yale and Princeton much as we today view community colleges: They serve a purpose, one supposes, but one would never allow one's daughter to marry a "graduate" of same.

So how, with such a richly deserved international rep as a scientific backwater, did the USA emerge as one of the preeminent scientific powers? In fairly large part because of the fight between Cope and Marsh, each determined to describe and name and claim credit for discovering the most, the biggest, the earliest, the crucial fossil, preferably of a dinosaur but in a pinch of a Pleistocene mammal, or a bird, or even a fish. FIRST counted MOST because of the convention that the first guy gets to name the discovery, and that's a huge---HUGE---deal because ever afterwards (well, almost ever afterwards, the exceptions needn't concern us here) your name is It.

Cope was a Quaker, with the seemingly universal Quaker trait of reserve. He was a married man, possessed of a deeply beloved wife and adored daughter. He was well-off, from a well-off family and never thought of himself as an outsider. He, naturally, was the underdog in every fight with Marsh because of this.

Marsh was a poor lad from a poor family, never married and no close ties to his birth family, though he (crucially for his ambitions) had a super-rich Uncle Peabody who funded his fossil fetish. He was hail-fellow-well-met, he never failed to browbeat, overawe or cow those he needed to accomplish his ends, or suck up to those whose ends he could serve while doing himself the maximum good. In short, a politician, and a surprisingly good one, given that his emotional constitution was both jealous and iniflexible. I think that, had I ever met Othniel (he hated that name!), I would have LOATHED him and attempted to belt him in the chops on G.P.s.

Cope, milder of manner but completely ruthless in his pursuit of fossils, was also the more prolific publisher of papers. He won many a battle in the Fossil Wars simply by being first on the field, though very often with the wrong information or with the right information wrongly interpreted. Famously, he assembled a pleisiosaur's skeleton with the head on the tail! And it was exhibited in the principal scientific museum of the day that way! And Marsh corrected him, publicly! Juicy stuff, and stuff that Jaffe makes excellent use of in his well-paced text.

The role of human nature's failings in the progress of the world is not an unexplored subject. It's evergreen, though, in its interest to us, and rightly so. Without Cope and Marsh's Fossil Wars, would we possess an interational scientific reputation today (albeit a steadily eroding one)? Yes, of course, it was inevitable that a huge, increasingly rich country like the USA was in the 19th century would come to the forefront. It was a matter of survival, really, since without scientific advance there is unlikely to be technological advance. But the Fossil Wars added so much to the world's store of knowledge that they were instrumental in affording American scientists something almost beyond price: Prestige. The burnished glow of merited repute. It's a huge gift these men gave to posterity, and one we've squandered most foolishly in recent times.

Anyway, I think this is the perfect end-of-year book because it's such a fun read, because it's a fascinating subject, and because, to a few important people, it's a reminder that a nation that fails to move forward is sliding backward. We're in danger of doing that again. In fact, I argue that we're already 10 years behind. The superconducting supercollider; the American absence from space; the abysmal condition of science education among our youth. It's a worrisome return to the status quo antebellum. I can only hope that the end of the Aughties means the end of the conservative, nay-saying, how-dare-we anti-science league's power.

Recommended. Really, truly good stuff here.

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FLOWER CONFIDENTIAL: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers
Amy Stewart

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: We buy more flowers a year than we do Big Macs, spending $6.2 billion annually. We use them to mark our most important events, to express sentiments that might otherwise go unsaid. And we demand perfection. So it's no surprise that there is a $40 billion global industry devoted to making flowers flawless.

Amy Stewart takes us inside the flower trade--from the hybridizers, who create new varieties in the laboratory, to the growers, who produce flowers by the millions (often in a factory-like setting), to the Dutch auctioneers, who set the bar (and the price), and ultimately to the neighborhood florists orchestrating the mind-boggling demands of Valentine's and Mother's Day. There's the breeder intent on developing the first blue rose; an eccentric horticultural legend who created the world's most popular lily; a grower of gerberas of every color imaginable; and the equivalent of a Tiffany diamond: the " Forever Young" rose.

Stewart explores the relevance of flowers in our lives and in our history, and in the process she reveals all that has been gained--and lost—by tinkering with nature.

My Review: I don't like flowers. I know most of you will think of that as an admission, but I think of it as a statement of character. Flowers are the female porn stars of the plant world: Look! Look!! These are my genitals, all splayed out and unnaturally manipulated to get you big, drooling apes to do what I want you to!

So I approached this book as a source of ammunition for my entrenched dislike of its subject. I was not disappointed.

Flowers are completely useless. We can't eat most of them, and are seldom hungry enough to eat the ones that won't make us ill. They serve little purpose in the insect world, at least the ones that a) don't eventually turn into fruits or b) have convinced the big drooling apes to do their reproducing and colonizing for them based on their sex organs' perceived attractiveness.

It's instructive to read this book as one who is immune to the "charms" of the flowers. The unacknowledged root (snort) of the whole enterprise of developing, growing, and selling the stupid things is never even questioned. Of course, the (female) author seems to say, of course you'll want to see these genitalia up close and personal all day and in your own home (why is that a given?)...she even says, at the end of the book, "Every day Americans go out and buy about ten million cut flowers...That's just over one flower a month {per person}. How can anybody get by on one flower a month?" (p269, hardcover ed.)

A better question is, "How DARE anybody spend actual money on these useless, frivolous things when there are hungry, homeless, and sick people right here in the richest country on Earth and in its history?!" And spare me the argument of all the jobs lost if we suddenly stop buyiing flowers...1) we won't and 2) they should go get useful jobs in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, free clinics and other places that do something worthwhile.

Writing's adequate, I suppose, nothing wrong with it; some moments of humor; but I can't recommend it to anyone, since if you're a flower person you don't need it and if you're not, you don't want it.

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