Category: Recent picks

Climate Change and Ice Sheets

earthcooker1Since the Industrial Revolution, leading scientists believe that man has been responsible for releasing large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The most well known of these gases is carbon dioxide. This is realeased (along with methane and carbon monoxide) during combustion/burning of fossil fuels.

Due to this ‘release’, greenhouse gas levels are the highest they have been since about 100 000 years ago, or two ice ages ago.

We can tell from trapped air bubbles in ice cores, taken from the ice sheets, in Antarctica and Greenland what the CO2 concentrations were going back roughly a million years (the most famous of these being the Vostok Ice Core). Scientists are able to extract these air bubbles, measure what the gas concentrations are, and work out the age of the bubble from the oxygen ratio in the surrounding ice.  (See the Two-Mile Time Machine book or Vostok Ice Core database paper below)

In the last week, Nasa have released a report saying that most of the Glaciers on the West Antarctic Ice sheet have retreated past the point of no return, and climate change is the culprit. The loss of these glaciers could lead to a collapse of a large portion of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which in turn could lead to a sea level rise of several metres (according to some reports). This could take a decade, it could take 1000 years, but scientists are now adamant that it is happening.

Website Articles

Here are the two articles from Nasa and Scientific American.


Here are some books on climate change and ice sheets:

Syndetics book coverIce, mice and men : the issues facing our far south / Geoff Simmons and Gareth Morgan with John McCrystal.
“Our far south is packed with history and wildlife, and is renowned for its breathtaking and photogenic beauty. But does our appreciation of the region run more than skin deep? Do Kiwis really understand how important the region is and what issues are facing it? In February 2012, Gareth Morgan trapped ten of New Zealand’s top experts on the region in a boat with 40 ordinary Kiwis for a month. Together with Geoff Simmons, he grilled them about the issues facing the region and this book is the result. What they found was startling. Our Far South – that part of New Zealand that extends from Stewart Island almost without interruption to the South Pole – harbours precious wildlife and is the engine room of the world’s oceans and climate. We are blessed to live in this unique part of the world, but we also have a huge responsibility to look after it. This book looks at the three ways we risk inflicting long-term, even permanent harm, on this precious and fragile region. The race to exploit resources has been underway for three centuries, and may be poised to escalate. Pressure from human activity may be threatening biodiversity and even the survival of species. And looming ever larger is the threat of climate change. Damage done to our far south will have profound implications, both for New Zealand and right across the globe.” (Cover)

Syndetics book coverThe two-mile time machine : ice cores, abrupt climate change, and our future / Richard B. Alley.
“Richard Alley, one of the world’s leading climate researchers, tells the fascinating history of global climate changes as revealed by reading the annual rings of ice from cores drilled in Greenland. In the 1990s he and his colleagues made headlines with the discovery that the last ice age came to an abrupt end over a period of only three years. Here Alley offers the first popular account of the wildly fluctuating climate that characterized most of prehistory–long deep freezes alternating briefly with mild conditions–and explains that we humans have experienced an unusually temperate climate. But, he warns, our comfortable environment could come to an end in a matter of years.” (

Syndetics book coverThe Goldilocks planet : the four billion year story of Earth’s climate / Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams.
“The climate change debate has long been dominated by climatologists, politicians, and economists, but the contributions of geologists to an understanding of this issue have been underreported. In The Goldilocks Planet, geologists Zalasiewicz and Williams (both, Univ. of Leicester, UK) synthesize a vast body of work on paleoenvironmental reconstruction and paleoclimate through geologic time. They identify the greenhouse and icehouse episodes from the Archaean eon to the present and explain how these conditions waxed and waned. The authors concentrate on the warming and cooling episodes from the Pliocene period (prior to the Pleistocene glaciations) to date and use substantial and diverse recent research findings. The Earth is now thought to be headed to that Pliocene warming benchmark. Zalasiewicz and Williams provide simple explanations of the astronomical, geological, chemical, and geographic factors that weave into the natural greenhouse and icehouse episodes. This scholarly book is well written and documented, and the authors make good use of analogies to convey the scale and importance of the processes at work. Along the way, readers also learn about the scientists in many fields who have contributed to the development of these ideas.” (CHOICE)


Here is an article from our Databases on the Vostok Ice Core

Recent Science Picks

Here are some of the latest science goodies that have come across my desk in the last month or so.

Syndetics book coverNumbers are forever / Liz Strachan.
“This title is only about numbers – that is, whole numbers and nothing but the whole numbers, which start from from 0, 1, 2, 3, 4 … and go on forever. Here you can meet perfect numbers, happy numbers, lucky, untouchable, weird, narcissistic, evil and deficient numbers, not to mention nice Friedmans and multi-legged repunits, as well as primes and their cousins, the sexy primes. It is also full of fascinating facts and curios, prime number conjectures, the sieve of Eratosthenes, the Fibonacci series, and much more besides.” (Library Catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe story of physics : from natural philosophy to the enigma of dark matter / Anne Rooney.
“The Story of Physics traces the development of physics from the natural philosophers of the ancient world to cutting-edge experiments in quantum mechanics Also features the giants of science history, from Archimedes through Newton and Galileo to Curie, Einstein and Hawking.” (Library Catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe perfect theory : a century of geniuses and the battle over general relativity / Pedro G. Ferreira.
“At the core of Einstein’s general theory of relativity are a set of equations that explain the relationship among gravity, space, and time–possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement of modern physics. For over a century, physicists have been exploring, debating, and at times neglecting Einstein’s theory in their quest to uncover the history of the universe, the origin of time, and the evolution of solar systems, stars, and galaxies. In this sweeping narrative of science and culture, Pedro Ferreira explains the theory through the human drama surrounding it: the personal feuds and intellectual battles of the biggest names in twentieth-century physics, from Einstein and Eddington to Hawking and Penrose. We are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics. As scientists look farther and more clearly into space than ever before, The Perfect Theory engagingly reveals the greater relevance of general relativity, showing us where it started, where it has led, and where it can still take us.” (Publisher’s description)

Syndetics book coverSpeed : how to make things go really fast / Guy Martin.
“How far can Guy Martin travel on a bicycle, in a human powered aircraft, on a hydroplaning motorbike or in a supersled? How will Guy Martin complete these four dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled speed challenges in record time?” (Cover)

Syndetics book coverNeanderthal man : in search of lost genomes / Svante Pääbo.
“As Paabo tells it, sequencing the genome of Neanderthal man seems to have been about equally fascinating and frustrating. Fortunately, fascination predominated, and ultimate success was reported in 2010 and closely followed by the sequencing of another progenitor of modern humans. The frustration that dogged the project arose from the difficulty of finding Neanderthal fossils with enough DNA left in them to reconstruct the genome, and the constant need to expel contamination by modern human DNA, which, since it highly resembles Neanderthal DNA, routinely corrupts sequencing the latter. The tale Paabo tells is largely one of technological improvement enabling the elimination of contamination and speeding up the sequencing process. Secondarily, it’s about creating scientific foundations and multinational scientific cooperation to pursue the promises of research into ancient DNA, including that of nonhuman species as well as hominins. Although he never mentions it, Paabo is the acknowledged founder of ancient DNA research. Instead, he sparingly recounts his personal odyssey from homosexuality to marriage and fatherhood, without relating it to his work, which may perplex some readers.” (Booklist)

Syndetics book coverThe monkey’s voyage : how improbable journeys shaped the history of life / Alan de Queiroz.
“Biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of living things, has been of interest since at least the time of the Greeks. In his entertaining and enlightening book, evolutionary biologist de Queiroz demonstrates that despite this longstanding interest in the subject, the discipline has resisted an organizing paradigm. De Queiroz comprehensively describes the shift, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, from Darwin’s belief that long-distance dispersal was the dominant explanation for biogeographic patterns to the rise of those promoting vicariance-the belief that environmental fragmentation is responsible for observed patterns-and back again to promoting long distance dispersal. He cogently describes the science underlying these ideas, the nature of continental drift, the complexity of molecular clocks, and the mathematics of cladistics, explaining why he believes the only reasonable interpretation for current data is an acceptance of rare, long-distance dispersal events that can only be called “mysterious” and “miraculous,” including the book’s eponymous monkeys accidentally crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the actual science, de Queiroz brings insight into the nature of scientific discourse itself.” (Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverVolcanoes of the south wind : a volcanic guide to Tongariro National Park / Karen Williams.
“A comprehensive field guide to the remarkable landscape of this dual World Heritage site. With photographs and diagrams, it tells the turbulent story of a volcanic complex that continues to make headlines. It explains the incredible forces that shape and mould the landscape, and where on the park’s walks and tracks you can see them.” (Back cover)

Syndetics book coverA garden of marvels : how we discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, and other secrets of plants / Ruth Kassinger.
“In the tradition of The Botany of Desire and Wicked Plants, the author of Paradise Under Glass gives us a witty and engaging history of the first botanists interwoven with stories of today’s extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab.” (Provided by publisher)

Recent Science Books: April 2014

Here are a few of the new books to have come across my desk in the last month:

Syndetics book coverTrespassing on Einstein’s lawn : a father, a daughter, the meaning of nothing, and the beginning of everything / Amanda Gefter.
“Opening with the author’s attempt to sneak herself and her father into a conference attended by the planet’s great scientific thinkers (including Brian Greene, Max Tegmark, and coiner of the term “black hole” John Wheeler), Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn takes readers on an exhilarating and memorable journey to the mysterious heart of the universe.” (Provided by publisher)

Syndetics book coverThe neutrino hunters : the chase for the ghost particle and the secrets of the universe / Ray Jayawardhana.
“While the Higgs boson has dominated recent physics news, astrophysicist Jayawardhana (Strange New Worlds) directs attention toward neutrinos, the “pathologically shy” elementary particles that offer a window into supernovas and may help answer questions about antimatter, dark matter, dark energy, and the early universe. With no electric charge and very little mass, neutrinos seldom interact with matter, for the most part passing untouched through the Earth itself; detection requires looking for particles created in the wake of the scant interactions that do occur. With clarity and wry humor, Jayawardhana relates how Wolfgang Pauli “invented” the neutrino to explain where missing energy went during beta decay, then later bet a case of champagne that it would never be detected experimentally. After neutrinos were finally observed for the first time in 1956, scientists expanded the hunt from Earth to space, examining the rays emitted by the Sun. From deep underground in South Dakota’s Homestake Gold Mine to Antarctica’s IceCube, currently the world’s largest neutrino detector, Jayawardhana vividly illuminates both the particle that has “baffled and surprised” scientists, and the researchers who hunt it.” (Abridged from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverQuantum mechanics : the theoretical minimum / Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman.
“Considered volume II in Susskind’s “Theoretical Minimum: What You Need to Know to Start Doing Physics” series (volume I covered classical mechanics), the authors offer highly motivated readers an introduction to the advanced mathematics needed to study quantum mechanics. As Susskind, a professor of theoretical physics at Stanford, and Friedman, a student of his physics lectures, explain, quantum mechanics requires us to rewire “our intuitions with abstract mathematics.” The book presents some basic quantum mechanical concepts, like spin and qubits, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, entanglement, wave functions, and Schrodinger’s Equation, but most of the text focuses on mathematics, from Boolean logic and statistics to vectors, matrices, and path integrals. The authors mean for this book to be “fully accessible to mathematically literate nonphysicists,” and it’s clear that those without a college-level grounding in math will find it difficult going. As it stands, the book will work well as a companion text for university students studying quantum mechanics or the armchair physicists following Susskind’s YouTube lectures.” (Abridged from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverHow to build a hovercraft : air cannons, magnet motors, and 25 other amazing DIY science projects / Stephen Voltz and Fritz Grobe.
“From the Diet Coke and Mentos fountain makers who found initial fame via YouTube and the Maker Faire comes this collection of 25 awesome projects guaranteed to inspire a love of scientific experimentation. Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz, also known as EepyBird, share some amazing DIY projects: a Diet Coke and Mentos fountain of Bellagio proportions, a leaf blower hovercraft, a paper airplane that will fly forever, and many more. Each experiment features instructions that will take users from amateur to showman level–there’s something here for all skill levels–alongside illustrations, photographs, and carefully explained science. EepyBird’s 25 Amazing Science Projects includes everything needed to create an exciting and impressive scientific production!” (Library Catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe accidental universe : the world you thought you knew / Alan Lightman.
“In his brief but engrossing latest essay collection, theoretical physicist and novelist Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams) offers insight into the ways that recent scientific discoveries shape our understanding of ourselves and our world. Each of the seven essays here explores the philosophical fallout from a particular corner of research. The titular lead essay examines the concept of the multiverse, and the potential implications of its existence, in light of the dark energy that keeps our universe from collapsing. “The Spiritual Universe” examines the often uneasy relationship between science and religion, while other pieces explore entropy, the vast scale of space, and unpredictable humanity’s role in a universe built on physical laws and composed of forces, light, and particles we can’t see. Lightman is one of the few physicists who can name-check the Dalai Lama, astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, Dostoevsky, and dark energy in the same work, while deftly guiding readers through discussions of modern physics and philosophy. Here he has composed a thoughtful, straightforward collection of essays that invite readers to think deeply about the world around them.” (Abridged from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverIn the eye of the storm : the autobiography of Sir John Houghton / Sir John Houghton with Gill Tavner.
“For John Houghton, the Chief Executive of the Met Office at the time of the Great Storm in 1987, and founding member of the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), childhood curiosity about the natural world led to a quest for answers through science. Inspired by new, exciting developments in space and computing technologies he pushed to use both to expand the horizons of meteorology and climate science. Through the IPCC he worked with scientists across the globe to develop our understanding of changing patterns of weather and climate, and to show that the impact of this change on human communities and natural ecosystems is real – and menacing. Sir John’s autobiography tells the story of a man who inspired a generation of scientists through his leadership, but also of the conflict this has brought him into with those who shared his Christian faith as well as with climate change deniers, in both America and Europe.” (Publisher’s description)

Syndetics book coverFive billion years of solitude : the search for life among the stars / Lee Billings.
“Billings (contributor, Nature; Popular Mechanics, etc.) interviewed astronomers and geologists to compile this occasionally meandering overview of the still-evolving field of “exoplanetary” research (discovery and characterization of planets orbiting other stars). Early dreams that we would locate and visit intelligent, technologically sophisticated beings elsewhere in space have been tempered as declining governmental funding has restricted our planet hunting. Today’s astronomers are still intrigued by the possibility of discovering ever more exoplanets and by primitive nonterrestrial life forms but are far less optimistic about finding intelligent life or sending manned -spacecraft outside the solar system. While this book may dampen the dreams of young planet hunters and exobiologists, the scientists featured still offer the hope that a combination of commercially viable unmanned spaceflight, public outreach by astronomers, and effective lobbying for improved research funding could expand our capacities to find new, somehow inhabited worlds beyond our own. VERDICT Complementary to Michael D. Lemonick’s more optimistic Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet’s Twin and less technical than Ray Jayawardhana’s Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System, this work will appeal to amateur astronomers and geologists as well as to general science buffs.” (Abridged from Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverCows save the planet and other improbable ways of restoring soil to heal the earth / Judith D. Schwartz ; foreword by Gretel Ehrlich.
“Most of us acknowledge that the earth beneath our feet is important for raising crops and nourishing lawns, yet few realize just how vital it is to our planet’s overall health. Inviting readers to roll up their pant legs and wade with her into the dirt, veteran journalist Schwartz reveals a wealth of detail about soil’s beneficial properties and presents a compelling case that proper soil management can end escalating worldwide desertification and slow, or even arrest, global warming. While these assertions may sound surprising, Schwartz collects abundant testimony from leading-edge soil scientists and activists, such as noted Zimbabwe biologist and rancher Allan Savory, whose sophisticated sheep- and cow-herding methods in several countries have completely restored arid grasslands in less than a decade. She also highlights evidence from little-known studies demonstrating that soil-restoration techniques can sequester about a billion tons of atmospheric carbon per year, potentially neutralizing damaging greenhouse gases. A well-written and persuasive manifesto for healing earth’s environmental woes with one of its most underappreciated resources.” (Abridged from Booklist)

Syndetics book coverThe essential Audrey Eagle : botanical art of New Zealand.
“Presents more than 150 paintings of our most loved native plants, from every major genus. The beautiful full-colour plates are accompanied by detailed notes, and a fresh introduction tells the story of Audrey Eagle and sets her place in the history of botanical illustration of New Zealand’s unique native flora.” (Back cover)

Syndetics book coverPlants for a changing climate / Trevor Nottle.
“The global warming trend is expected to result in a warmer, drier climate. In this updated edition of Plants for Mediterranean Climate Gardens (2004), an Australian horticulturalist discusses the impact of climate change on gardening practices. Rather than lament what may be lost, Nottle touts expanding opportunities for growing everything from shade-making plants to more exotic drought tolerant ornamental and edible species and cultivars. The book includes color photographs of his favorites and recommended reading.” (Syndetics summary)

Recent Science Books

Just a few of the new science items that have come across my desk in the last wee while.

Syndetics book coverConstellations / Giles Sparrow.
“For anyone who has ever looked up at the night sky and wanted to explore more, this stunning Constellations book will be sure to turn any reader into an avid and enthralled stargazer. Focusing on the 88 popular and distinctive patterns of the stars and unearthing the appealing and intriguing stories behind each one, including their origins and mythology, you will soon be spotting the magnificent objects in the sky and enjoying their wonder night after night. Featuring 300 of the best astronomical images ever captured alongside comprehensive yet easy-to-follow information about the stars and other celestial phenomena, the state-of-the-art star maps show the stars visible from both hemispheres and the detailed snippets of text will bring you up to scratch with all you need to know about constellations from ancient times right up to today.” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe best Australian science writing 2013 / edited by Jane McCredie and Natasha Mitchell.
“The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 brings together great writing about life and the universe, including contributions from poets and psychologists, comedians and climate commentators, neuroscientists and novelists, star-gazers and science journalists.” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe secret language of color : science, nature, history, culture, beauty of red, orange, yellow, green, blue & violet / Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut.
“This beautifully designed color primer has few secrets, but it does contain a clear, comprehensible introduction to the science of color. Color consultant Joanna Eckstut (founder, Roomworks; The Color Palette Primer) and Arielle Eckstut (cofounder, Book Doctors; The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published) link the way that images look to us with the construction of the eye and the behavior of light. In the chapters addressing how the physical world uses color, the authors never shy away from refreshing a reader’s memory of high school physics. The chapters on color’s cultural meanings are necessarily cursory but satisfyingly international in scope. Colored boxes and borders highlight tidbits of information and break up areas of text, keeping the reader engaged. VERDICT Because every concept is illustrated with lushly printed photographs and diagrams, this work will be a godsend for a visual learner. Recommended for beginning color enthusiasts and for those who enjoyed Jude Stewart’s Roy G. Biv: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color.” (Adapted from Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverScience year by year : the ultimate guide to the discoveries that changed the world / editor-in-chief, Professor Robert Winston.
“This is the ultimate guide to the discoveries that changed the world. From the discovery of the wheel to the worldwide web our thirst for innovation is what makes us human. Science Year by Year takes a fascinating look at our heritage of invention and explores how science has shaped the past and how it may shape the future. Science Year by Year has a new discovery for everyone in the family, with global coverage of all major scientific advances. Groundbreaking thinkers such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin are covered, with their discoveries clearly explained and situated in scientific history with illustrated timelines. Revolutionary innovations such as measuring time, gears and plastics are detailed alongside scientific artefacts such as navigation tools and flying machines. Science Year by Year is perfect for anyone interested in invention and innovation with exciting discoveries to be made by all.” (Library Catalogue)

Syndetics book coverNarwhals : Arctic whales in a melting world / Todd McLeish.
“Having since childhood been in love with Narwhals (the males of which have one horn, giving them a magical aura), author McLeish (public information officer, Univ. of Rhode Island; Basking with Humpbacks) spent years pondering their oddities, grace, lore, and biological reality. Finally taking an opportunity to join a team of researchers in Canada and visiting an Inuit hunting camp in Greenland, he had the chance to transform his boyhood fantasies into the stuff of real life. Unlike some other biological/journalistic stories, McLeish’s book is not cluttered with distracting detail or a confusing, jumpy narrative but instead is a tightly written piece that richly and ably tells the past and present-and hints of the future-of these marvelous, endangered, long-toothed animals. VERDICT Although lacking in the more formal documentation of a scientific work (there is a bibliography but no further reading recommendations or notes), this will nonetheless be a good title for academic as well as public libraries. The clarity and strong narrative will well serve both students and enthusiasts of biological studies, ecological concepts, marine life, conservation, and similar topics.” (Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverThe mythical zoo : animals in myth, legend, and literature / Boria Sax.
“From Aesop’s Fables to Mockingjay, animals have always played a pivotal role in human culture. Even today, animals wield symbolic powers as varied as the cultures that embrace them. Sacred cows, wily serpents, fearsome lions, elegant swans, busy bees, and sly foxes–all are caricatures of the creatures themselves, yet they reflect not only how different cultures see the natural world around them but also how such cultures make use of their native animals. In this fun and thought-provoking book, historian and animal enthusiast Boria Sax argues for a classification of animals that goes beyond the biological to encompass a more meaningful distinction: tradition. From ants and elephants to tigers and tortoises, The Mythical Zoo weaves together a crosscultural tapestry encompassing mythology, history, art, science, philosophy, and literature. The result is a beautifully illustrated, masterfully composed love letter to the animal kingdom” (Provided by publisher)

Syndetics book coverWildlife of New Zealand / photography by Rob Suisted ; text by Matt Turner.
“A pictorial collection of native New Zealand wildlife from a variety of habitats, including forests, shores and marine environments, alpine and wetlands.” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverAre we being watched? : the search for life in the cosmos / Paul Murdin.
“Is there life out there? The short answer is probably not. The shorter and more intriguing answer. maybe. In this beguiling and accessible book, the man responsible for finding the first black hole in our galaxy roams the universe looking for life-from Earth to Mars and beyond. Though he writes that his head is telling him one thing, astronomer Murdin (Secrets of the Universe) admits that his heart is telling him another, and he’s hopeful that life out there exists. One encouraging sign comes from the moon missions-bacteria normally found in the human mouth survived for over two years in Surveyor 3 equipment, which was later collected by astronauts aboard Apollo 12. But in order for life to flourish, Murdin explains, you need water, energy, and atmosphere. He goes on to explore possible combinations of these critical elements on neighboring planets, while also interweaving accounts of relevant discoveries and the scientists that made them, from Aristotle to Darwin to contemporary researchers, as well as the debates that continue to confound them. Murdin’s enthusiasm and fascination with the subject matter is palpable throughout, and he deftly manages to inform without boring knowledgeable readers or dumbing it down for lay folk.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Recent Science Picks

Just a few of the great new volumes that came across my desk while I was away:

Syndetics book coverGame of knowns : science is coming… / Dr Karl Kruszelnicki.
“The inimitable Dr Karl reigns once more in his Dynasty of 34 Science Books with scintillating science scenarios, techie tales and tasty morsels to sate even the most haemoglobin-thirsty of his army of followers. In Game of Knowns, he divulges why psychopaths make good kings, how smartphones dumb down our conversations, why the left side of your face is the most attractive, how the female worker bee gets a raw deal and why we drink beer faster when it is served in a curved glass. He discloses the amazing opportunities that 3D Printing will bring, the magic of hoverboards, solemnly shares why dark matter matters, and spills the scientific basis of wealth distribution. Thereby Science is decreed to be the only true ruler of the kingdom, and there is none better to claim the Throne than Australia’s most trusted and knowledge-thirsty scientist – Dr Karl.” (Book cover)

Syndetics book coverHow to read the solar system / Chris North and Paul Abel.
“The Solar System – so what is it? We’ve all learned the basics at school but how much can you remember? Expert astronomers and co-presenters of The Sky at Night Chris North and Paul Abel take a fascinating guided tour of our Solar System and explain its wonders. They look at all the major players, including our more familiar neighbours – the Sun, the planets and their moons – the occasional visitors to our planet – asteroids, meteors and comets – as well as distant stars and what might be beyond our Solar System – Earth Mark II? Chris and Paul recount the history of how everything came about and the myths that once shaped astronomy. They explain the latest science and discoveries, and reveal how any amateur astronomer can view and interpret the Solar System.” (

Syndetics book coverNothing : from absolute zero to cosmic oblivion – amazing insights into nothingness / edited by Jeremy Webb.
“All too easily, we ignore or dismiss the fascinating possibilities of emptiness and non-existence. But without nothing, or rather what we’ve long taken to be nothing – we’d be nowhere. This title is suitable for those who are interested in science – or in the greatest mysteries of our world.” (Publisher’s description)

Syndetics book coverA female genius : how Ada Lovelace started the computer age / James Essinger.
“A Female Genius tells for the first time the astonishing story how Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, was poised to start the computer age almost two centuries ago, in 1840s London. Despite encountering opposition the principles of science were beyond the strength of a woman s physical power of application, she was the only nineteenth-century scientist to achieve this understanding. She wrote the world’s first computer programme and foresaw our use of CDs for music.” (

Syndetics book coverBiophysics for dummies / by Ken Vos.
“The fast and easy way to get up to speed on biophysics! This guide includes coverage on biomechanics, fluids, sound and waves, radioactivity, and much more. It is a one-stop resource that explains in plain English everything you need to know to ace your biophysics course.” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe shark that walks on land — and other strange but true tales of mysterious sea creatures / Michael Bright.
“This title uncovers tales of ancient and modern mariners, with stories of sea serpents, mermaids and mermen, sea dragons, and the true identity of the legendary kraken. But this is more than a showcase for mystery beasts for marine biologists from all over the world, the modern mythbusters are finding all manner of unusual animals, many new to science.” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe Gaia hypothesis : science on a pagan planet / Michael Ruse.
“In 1965 English scientist James Lovelock had a flash of insight: the Earth is not just teeming with life; the Earth, in some sense, is life. He mulled this revolutionary idea over for several years, first with his close friend the novelist William Golding, and then in an extensive collaboration with the American scientist Lynn Margulis. In the early 1970s, he finally went public with the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that everything happens for an end: the good of planet Earth. Lovelock and Margulis were scorned by professional scientists, but the general public enthusiastically embraced Lovelock and his hypothesis. People joined Gaia groups; churches had Gaia services, sometimes with new music written especially for the occasion. There was a Gaia atlas, Gaia gardening, Gaia herbs, Gaia retreats, Gaia networking, and much more. And the range of enthusiasts was-and still is-broad. In The Gaia Hypothesis, philosopher Michael Ruse, with his characteristic clarity and wit, uses Gaia and its history, its supporters and detractors, to illuminate the nature of science itself.” (

Syndetics book coverThe accidental species : misunderstandings of human evolution / Henry Gee.
“Gee, paleontology editor at Nature, confronts two commonly held views of evolution and effectively demolishes both, persuasively arguing that evolution doesn’t work the way most people believe it does and that the entire concept of “human exceptionalism” (the idea that humans are fundamentally superior to other animals due to “language, technology, or consciousness”) is erroneous. By providing a cogent description of natural selection, he explains how evolutionary progress does not necessarily lead to increasingly complex organisms, and why it makes no sense to consider adaptation yielding an ideal fit between an organism and its environment. Building on this concept, Gee demonstrates that there is nothing about humans, from our bipedalism to our tool-making abilities, and from language to cognition, that definitively sets us apart from other species of animals. He buttresses these points with an impressive and accessible overview of the pattern of human evolution, showing just how little we actually know and arguing that different evolutionary stories could likely fit the extant data. Throughout, he explores how science simultaneously explains the unknown while raising new questions. Gee is also adamant that the process of evolution is the best explanation we have for the diversity of life, and he provides a scathing attack on creationists who have taken his words out of context and used them to support their own pseudoscientific claims.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Science Recent Picks – Maths & Physics… they are cool now, right?

Just a few of the new Maths and Physics books that have reared their heads in the last week or two:

Syndetics book coverFrom 0 to infinity in 26 centuries : the extraordinary story of maths / Chris Waring.
“We may remember their equations and discoveries from school, but do we remember who the men behind the math were? From the theories of Pythagoras (did you know he ran a secret brotherhood that studied maths, music, and gymnastics?) to coining the term “Googol,” this book is packed full of fascinating facts and surprising stories from ancient times to the modern day. Do you want to know why the Ancient Greeks knew so much math? Or, why there was so little math studied in the Dark Ages? Read this fascinating book to uncover the mysteries of math.” (

Syndetics book coverEinstein and the quantum : the quest of the valiant Swabian / A. Douglas Stone.
“Einstein and the Quantum reveals for the first time the full significance of Albert Einstein’s contributions to quantum theory. Einstein famously rejected quantum mechanics, observing that God does not play dice. But, in fact, he thought more about the nature of atoms, molecules, and the emission and absorption of light–the core of what we now know as quantum theory–than he did about relativity. A compelling blend of physics, biography, and the history of science, Einstein and the Quantum shares the untold story of how Einstein–not Max Planck or Niels Bohr–was the driving force behind early quantum theory. It paints a vivid portrait of the iconic physicist as he grappled with the apparently contradictory nature of the atomic world, in which its invisible constituents defy the categories of classical physics, behaving simultaneously as both particle and wave. And it demonstrates how Einstein’s later work on the emission and absorption of light, and on atomic gases, led directly to Erwin Schrödinger’s breakthrough to the modern form of quantum mechanics. The book sheds light on why Einstein ultimately renounced his own brilliant work on quantum theory, due to his deep belief in science as something objective and eternal.A book unlike any other, Einstein and the Quantum offers a completely new perspective on the scientific achievements of the greatest intellect of the twentieth century, showing how Einstein’s contributions to the development of quantum theory are more significant, perhaps, than even his legendary work on relativity” (Provided by publisher)

Syndetics book coverLove and math : the heart of hidden reality / Edward Frenkel.
“After Rick and Isla meet at a dinner party and fall in love, what’s next? For Frenkel, it is the mathematical charting of the Rick-Isla relationship as a trajectory on the x-y plane. The surprising notion of a formula of love fits into the remarkable understanding of math Frankel unfolds as he recounts his labors on conceptual frontiers where an audacious new master theory, the Langlands Program, is linking geometry, number theory, and algebra. To qualify for a role in those labors, Frenkel defied the anti-Semitism pervading the Soviet academic world in which he came of age and then won appointment to a Harvard professorship. Aware that few of his readers share his academic training, Frenkel pares the technical details to a minimum as he reflects on the platonic transcendence of mathematical concepts and marvels at their mysterious utility in explaining physical phenomena. Not merely dry formulas in textbooks, the math Frenkel celebrates fosters freedom and, yes, even distills the essence of love. A breathtaking personal and intellectual odyssey.” (Adapted from Booklist)

Syndetics book coverThinking in numbers : on life, love, meaning, and math / Daniel Tammet.
“*Starred Review* With these words from a fellow mathematician, There is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics, Tammet describes the magical realms he explores in these 25 wonderful essays. Here numbers become portals to pure possibilities in the math of life. Smashing preconceptions of mathematics as a task for drudges, Tammet takes prime numbers as a key for unlocking haiku by Basho and shares the emotion-laden colors surging through his mind when, as a number artist, he sets a European record by reciting the value of pi to 22,514 decimal places. Tammet visits the pure possibilities in mathematics that inspire poetry, drama, and even theology. But the tether of impure reality tugs the author back into a world where impoverished grandparents suffer the indignity of eviction, their furniture scattered across the front lawn; a world where his mother manages Christmas for a large family only by scouring neighborhood garage sales. But then, perhaps, it is precisely in the tension between math’s sublime dreamscapes and the terrestrial numbers of working-class budgets that readers truly see the math of life. Admirers of Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day (2007) and Embracing the Wide Sky (2009) will find here fresh reasons to laud the author’s gifts.” (Adapted from Booklist)

Syndetics book coverChaotic fishponds and mirror universes / Richard Elwes ; [illustrations by Patrick Nugent].
“What can we learn from fish in a pond? How do social networks connect the world? How can artificial intelligences learn? Why would life be different in a mirror universe?
Mathematics is everywhere, whether we are aware of it or not. Exploring the subject through 35 of its often odd and unexpected applications, this book provides an insight into the ‘hidden wiring’ that governs our world.
From the astonishing theorems that control computers to the formulae behind stocks and shares, and from the foundations of the internet to the maths behind medical imaging, Chaotic Fishponds and Mirror Universes explains how mathematics determines every aspect of our lives – right down to the foundations of our bodies.” (

Syndetics book coverWhat if Einstein was wrong? : asking the big questions about physics / editor, Brian Clegg ; foreword by Jim Al-Khalili.“Asking the big questions about physics. What if…? are the two words that sow the seeds for human speculation, experimentation, invention, evolution, revolution, and change. In an uncertain age, economists are asking, What if growth stopped growing?; scientists, What if light speed were overtaken?; and politicians, What if the third world became the first? What If Einstein Was Wrong? challenges a team of scholars to experiment with 50 topical science speculations, at a time when the hunt for the Higgs boson particle is threatening to undermine the foundations of our knowledge. Consider what time travel, warp speed, artificial gravity, or the loss of Schrodingers cat could mean to us, and en route accumulate the knowledge you need to debate the shape that our science might take in the future.” (

Syndetics book coverHow big is big and how small is small : the sizes of everything and why / by Timothy Paul Smith.
“This book is about how big is the universe and how small are quarks, and what are the sizes of dozens of things between these two extremes. It describes the sizes of atoms and planets, quarks and galaxies, cells and sequoias. It is a romp through forty-five orders of magnitude from the smallest sub-nuclear particles we have measured, to the edge of the observed universe. It also looks at time, from the epic age of the cosmos to the fleeting lifetimes of ethereal particles. It is a narrative that trips its way from stellar magnitudes to the clocks on GPS satellites, from the nearly logarithmic scales of a piano keyboard through a system of numbers invented by Archimedes and on to the measurement of the size of an atom.” (

Syndetics book coverFarewell to reality : how modern physics has betrayed the search for scientific truth / Jim Baggott.
“From superstrings and black holes to dark matter and multiverses, modern theoretical physics revels in the bizarre. Now it’s wandered into the realm of “fairy-tale,” says science writer and former “practicing” physicist Baggott (A Beginners Guide to Reality). Quantum theory led scientists to create a Standard Model of physics in the mid-20th century, but that model is really an amalgam of distinct individual quantum theories necessary to describe a diverse array of forces and particles. Meanwhile, astronomical observations have revealed that 90% of our universe is made of something we can’t see (dark matter); some mysterious “dark energy” is pushing all of it apart at an accelerating rate, and physicists are gambling on a “supersymmetry” theory in hopes that it could be the holy grail, a Grand Unified Field Theory that might lend coherence to the Standard Model while explaining some of the phenomena the latter fails to account for-despite the fact, Baggott says, that for “every standard model problem it resolves, another problem arises that needs a fix.” In consistently accessible and intelligent prose, Baggott sympathetically captures the frustrations of physicists while laying out a provocative-and very convincing-plea for a reality check in a field that he feels is now too “meta” for its own good.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Natural History Selections : December

A wealth of new books have arrived in time for the festive season holiday break, with many warmly recommended. There’s a strong ornithological theme but plenty of other offerings – from giraffes to gender differences – to choose from.

Syndetics book coverAnimal Earth : the amazing diversity of living creatures, by Ross Piper.
If you already had an inkling that life on earth is diverse, still prepare to be amazed. This book is packed with breath-taking photographs of mostly marine or microscopic creepy-crawlies. I never thought I would find worms and slugs interesting and beautiful, but this has changed my mind.

Syndetics book cover“Birds and people, by Mark Cocker and David Tipling ; with specialist research by and the support of Jonathan Elphick and John Fanshawe.
“There are approximately 10,500 bird species in the world, and many of them have significant relationships to people food, recreation, art, origin stories, research, and religion, to name a few. Hundreds of birders from around the world flocked together to assist Cocker via stories and observations, building this fascinating compilation of significant human-bird relationships. Entries represent 146 bird families, while another 59 families with no known cultural importance are listed in an appendix. Tipling’s photographs (and others) supplement the text with beautiful images and informative content. This is both a reference book and a book to be read for enjoyment.” (drawn from Booklist, courtesy of Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverSeeing flowers : discover the hidden life of flowers, by photography by Robert Llewellyn ; text by Teri Dunn Chace.
“Seeing Flowers is a visual feast that gloriously highlights 343 popular garden flowers. Using a unique photo process that includes stitching together large macro photographs, Robert Llewellyn reveals details that few have ever seen: the amazing architecture of stamens and pistils; the subtle shadings on a petal; the secret recesses of nectar tubes. Teri Dunn Chace’s lyrical and illuminating essays complement these images and offer insights on each flower, by exploring its distinguishing characteristics and sharing fascinating tidbits, tales, and lore.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverGreen equilibrium : the vital balance of humans & nature, by Christopher Wills.
“*Starred Review* In his latest popular science book, an encompassing work of fresh and realigning perspectives and discoveries enlivened by his wildlife photographs, Wills explores how ecosystems are shaped by evolution and how we are shaped by evolution and the ecosystems we inhabit. To define his concept of green equilibrium, Wills describes how one such ecological balancing act in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater went awry when park rangers suppressed grassland fires: disease-bearing ticks thrived, killing many of the big cats. … Demanding science alternates with anecdotal profiles of local people, park rangers, and scientists and cautionary tales of tragedies and triumphs, paradoxes and ironies. … as Earth’s ruling predator we must become fluent in green equilibriums, learn to be less exploitive, and harness the accumulated knowledge of indigenous people to restore and protect the living world”.–Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 BooklistFrom Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. (Booklist)

Syndetics book coverTop 100 birding sites of the world, by Dominic Couzens.
Even if you have no intention of visiting these 100 sites, this book is a visual delight. His criteria for selection include bird (or species) numbers, amazing migration events, or rare or unusual species. Very little information about the sites is provided, but the photographs of stunning landscapes are worth a gander alone.

Syndetics book coverGiraffe reflections, text by Dale Peterson ; photographs by Karl Ammann.
This book is the perfect accompaniment to feeding the giraffes at Wellington Zoo these school holidays. Although magnificiently illustrated, it is more than just a collection of fantastic photographs – with a lot of interesting facts and information to satisfy the armchair zoologist. Recommended for both young and old who enjoy learning about African wildlife.

Syndetics book coverPenguins : close encounters / David Tipling.
The vibrant and exciting world of penguins is shown in all its glory in this new book from renowned wildlife photographer David Tipling, who has trekked to remote and beautiful locations to capture birds in their natural habitat going about their daily lives. Moments rarely caught by humans have been preserved on film and reproduced in full-colour.

Syndetics book coverChasing Doctor Dolittle : learning the language of animals, by Con Slobodchikoff.
“Focusing on important issues such as eating, danger, love, protection, and initial interactions, Slobodchikoff puts the world of animal communication into a realm that readers can readily understand, appreciate, and marvel at. Highly recommended for general readers interested in the complexities of language across species.” (Library Journal verdict, courtesy of Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverThe drunken botanist : the plants that create the world’s great drinks, by Amy Stewart.
“…so rich in details, little-known facts, and actual science, that readers won’t even notice they are reading an encyclopedia. Each plant description includes history, propagation, and usage details. Stewart includes sidebars with recipes, field guides, planting instructions, a description of the role of bugs in getting from seed to plant to table, and in-depth historical details. She includes archaeological finds such as the presence of barley beer on clay pot fragments dated to 3400 B.C.E. …. Highly recommended.” (drawn from Library Journal, courtesy of Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverOdd couples : extraordinary differences between the sexes in the animal kingdom, by Daphne J. Fairbairn.
“Through colorful descriptions, we imply that animals and humans, especially in gender roles, can be quite alike. Fairbairn shows us just a bit of the much greater complexity that exists in the natural world. She highlights seven examples of differences between the males and females of a species, ranging from the more familiar (elephant seals) to the unfamiliar (giant sea devils) to the downright creepy (bone-eating worms).” (drawn from Library Journal, courtesy of Syndetics) Summary : suitable both for general and more advanced readers.

Syndetics book coverDolphins down under : understanding the New Zealand dolphin, by Liz Slooten & Steve Dawson.
“Intended for readers of all ages. It includes information that would fit neatly into a school project as well as in-depth information for university students and other interested readers. It is written for people seriously interested in biology, as well as for those simply captivated by dolphins” (p. 4).

Syndetics book coverBirds of New Zealand : a photographic guide, by Paul Scofield, Brent Stephenson.
“[An] introduction to the identification and behaviour of this country’s extraordinary avian life. From the Kermadecs to Campbell Island, from beloved endemics to passing vagrants, from albatrosses and shearwaters to kiwi and kākā, the book ranges widely. Key features include: expert and up-to-date information on the 345 bird species found in New Zealand ; almost 1000 new photographs illustrating key identification characteristics and variation by age and sex ; authoritative text covering identification, behaviour, distribution and taxonomy ; M&#0257ori, English and scientific names”–Publisher information.

Other recent bird books :
Tui : a nest in the bush, by Meg Lipscombe.
Penguins : their world, their ways, by Tui De Roy, Mark Jones, Julie Cornthwaite.
Where to watch birds in Canterbury, by Nick Allen.
Call of the k&#0333kako, by Jeff Hudson.
Shorebirds of New Zealand : sharing the margins, by Keith Woodley.

Recent Science Books… sorry it’s been awhile

These are some of the new books that have been stacking up on my desk in the last wee while:

Syndetics book coverStar-craving mad : tales from a travelling astronomer / Fred Watson.
“Watson, Australia’s most popular astronomer, offers a lighthearted excursion into the history of mankind’s understanding of the universe. The subtitle refers to the astronomy tours he leads, which also inform the book’s structure, and the book is a combination of travelogue-incorporating time spent aboard an astronomy cruise-and popular science, as it explores several continents, eras, and scientists of historic note. Colloquial riffs on cell phone coverage, bad acronyms in science organizations, and commercial space flight’s “well-heeled joy-riders hooning [sic] into space,” keep the tone light. While the conversational, anecdotal voice conveys Watson’s personality, the scientific material suffers, as it is only broadly summarized; the result is somewhat shallow. Limited to introductions to the most famous breakthroughs in astronomy and physics, Watson offers little to readers already familiar with the development of telescopes, Newtonian physics, relativity, Copernicanism, or quantum mechanics. ” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverSeven elements that have changed the world / John Browne.
“‘The progress and prosperity that humanity has achieved …’, writes John Browne, ‘is driven by people – scientists, business people and politicians’. The author has the rare distinction of having wide and deep experience of all three fields, and this is what makes Seven Elements such a fascinating and enjoyable book. Part popular science, part history, part memoir, these pages are infused with insight, shaped by the experience of a FTSE 100 Chief Executive and lifted by the innate optimism of a scientist. — Brian Cox Seven Elements is a boon for those, like me, who gave up science much too soon in our teens. John Browne has found a fascinating way of helping us break through the crust of our ignorance. The scientific literate too will relish his personal mix of historical knowledge and technical prowess with his gift for making the complicated understandable. — Peter Hennessy The human quest for knowledge and insight has led to extraordinary progress. It has transformed the lives we lead and the world we live in. But that onward march has also thrown us huge challenges about how we treat each other and the planet on which we live. This book forces us to confront these realities and does it in a unique and fascinating way. It weaves science and humanity together in a way that gives us new insight. This is an expertly crafted book by a unique thinker and talented engineer and businessman. — Tony Blair John Browne uses seven elements, building blocks of the physical world, to explore a multitude of worlds beyond. From the rise of civilizations, to some of today’s most important challenges and opportunities, to the frontiers of research, he weaves together science, history, politics and personal experience. Browne tells a lively story that enables us to see the essential elements of modern life in a new, original and highly engaging way. — Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Of The Quest: Energy, Security And The Making Of The Modern World And The Prize.” (

Syndetics book cover30-second astronomy : the 50 most mindblowing discoveries in astronomy, each explained in half a minute / editor, Francois Fressin ; foreword by Martin Rees ; contributors, Darren Baskill … [et al.].
“How hot is Venus? Can you distinguish between a pulsar and a quasar? Is there a universe or a multiverse? Where do we fit into the infinitely grand scheme of things? How do we map the Cosmic Microwave Background? Most tantalizing of all: Is there anyone out there? The answers to these and many other far-out questions lie in your hands. Everyone’s gazing at the heavens, but a voyage through the star-studded contents of this book will blow your mind. Astronomy encapsulates the terrifying hugeness of the cosmos into bite-size particles that mere earthlings can understand: 50 incredible discoveries brought down to Earth using no more than two pages, 300 words, and a picture. This one small volume takes you on a cosmic tour, shedding light on the most awesome of objects and places, explaining some very big ideas, concepts, and discoveries, and presenting the scientists and observers who have done so much to crack Life, the Universe, and Everything. Welcome aboard.” (

Syndetics book coverMaths 1001 / Richard Elwes.
The ultimate smart reference to the world of mathematics from quadratic equations and Pythagoras’ Theorem to chaos theory and quantum computing. (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverThe universe in the rearview mirror : how hidden symmetries shape reality / Dave Goldberg.
“A Drexel University physics professor offers readers an informative, math-free, and completely entertaining look at the concept of symmetry in physics. Goldberg begins by explaining that for something to be considered symmetrical, it must look the same after undergoing a transformation-whether being flipped over, spun around, or reflected in a mirror. Sounds simple enough, but Goldberg insists that symmetries reveal some compelling rules of the universe. For example, CPT symmetry (or charge, parity, and time symmetry, the kind found when all particles and antiparticles have been turned into the opposite of themselves, everything has been flipped in a mirror, and the flow of time has been reversed-basically the ultimate transformation) suggests that “the universe is more or less the same in all directions and in all places.” Throughout his fascinating discussion, Goldberg’s writing remains accessible and full of humor. Intriguing asides cover topics like the veracity of Star Trek (it “could totally happen”), how black holes shrink the more matter they consume, and why you should never teleport a teaspoon of material from a neutron star into the cargo hold of your starship. Seasoning his expose with pop culture references that range from Doctor Who to Lewis Carroll to Angry Birds, Goldberg succeeds in making complex topics clear with a winning style.” (Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverGenes, cells, and brains : the Promethean promises of the new biology / Hilary Rose and Steven Rose.
“Although biotechnology has become a multibillion dollar business, the actual benefits to individuals have been surprisingly rare, according to the Roses (Alas Poor Darwin), she a sociologist and he a biologist in England. They do an impressive job of providing brief histories of the rise of the Human Genome Project, stem-cell research, and the field of neuroscience, documenting the claims proponents of each have made about the way medicine would be transformed and arguing that virtually none of the promised benefits have come to pass. They offer both scientific and sociological explanations for the lack of results. On the scientific front, they explain how the underlying biology is far more complex than originally thought while, from a sociological perspective, they posit a business model that privileges the wealthy and disregards important issues associated with race and class. Their political perspective is clear: “Since the banking meltdown of 2007-08, the neoliberal leaders of Europe and the U.S. are agreed that the welfare of the majority, above all the most vulnerable, must be replaced by welfare payments to bankers.” Some will find this argument powerful, others strident, but many will find much to consider.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverThe universe within : discovering the common history of rocks, planets, and people / Neil Shubin.
“University of Chicago paleontologist Shubin wrote about the fishy origins of humanity in 2009’s Your Inner Fish. In his new book, he goes farther back and further out, explaining how humans bear the markings of cosmic phenomena; as he puts it, “Written inside us is the birth of the stars.” Here, the author surveys everything from glints in “Greenlandic rocks” to the spreading signs of supernovae to reveal “deep ties to the forces that shaped our bodies.” He demonstrates how mammals owe their “high-energy lifestyle[s]” to oxygen released hundreds of millions of years ago as continents spread apart, and how color vision arose after continental drift cooled the planet, diversified flora, and resulted in biological competition that favored those organisms who could identify nutritious plants according to hue (“Every time you admire a richly colorful view, you can thank India for slamming into Asia”). Shubin is a leading proponent of the fusion of paleontology, developmental genetics, and genomics, and the result of his efforts is a volume of truly inspired science writing. Appropriately vast in scope, Shubin deftly balances breadth and depth in his search for a “sublimely beautiful truth.”” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverLiving in a dangerous climate : climate change and human evolution / Renée Hetherington.
“In this ambitious and wide-ranging book touching on paleoclimatology, economics, biology, sociology, and anthropology, Hetherington (Canada-based natural resources consultant; coauthor with R. Reid, The Climate Connection, CH, Nov’10, 48-1452) provides a highly readable overview of how environmental change has affected humans from the time Homo species appeared in the geologic record through evolutionary changes, to the advent of civilizations, development of agriculture, and modern societies. The book begins with a summary of the climatic history of Earth along with an overview of evolutionary theory and a description of human evolution, migrations out of Africa, and ultimately the development of agriculture. The remainder of the book ties these two themes together using examples from the scientific literature to illustrate the way that environmental changes (resulting from natural phenomena or human factors) have caused humans to adapt. From these past examples, Hetherington then tackles future climate change and addresses topics such as why societies have been slow to respond to predicted threats from these climatic changes, how the economic system interferes with scientifically driven decision making, and what this means for future generations and how humanity might survive challenging climatic conditions in years to come. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates, general readers, and professionals. D. Goldblum Northern Illinois UniversityCopyright American Library Association, used with permission.” (CHOICE)

Syndetics book coverPolar bears : the natural history of a threatened species / Ian Stirling.
“Stirling (scientist, emeritus, Canadian Wildlife Svc.; biology, Univ. of Alberta) has studied polar bears for over 40 years. In this highly readable natural history of the polar bear in a nontechnical reference format, he presents the basic facts about polar bears in response to the general public’s heightened awareness of the species because of climate change. As polar bears rely on an ice-based environment, global warming is a serious threat to their existence. In this book, readers learn about polar bears’ distribution, evolution, feeding habits, morphology, physiology, reproduction, conservation, behavior, and threats to their survival. Stirling draws extensively from his own research as well as from traditional knowledge from different groups of native peoples, such as the Inuits, who have interacted with polar bears for thousands of years. Verdict? Not just for mammalogists, this title will appeal to readers with an interest in arctic ecology or the effects of global warming.” (Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverA photographic guide to fossils of New Zealand / Hamish Campbell … [et al.].
“A new addition to the popular New Holland series of natural history and science photographic guides, the thirteenth title focuses on plant and animal fossils commonly found in New Zealand. Fossils are the preserved remains of past life and are very much part of the natural environment in this country. The range of fossils described covers the geological time-scale of Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic periods. The younger Cenozoic rocks are especially widespread in New Zealand and for this reason Cenozoic fossils are the most common. Readers will learn to recognise the distinctive features of each group of fossils – shape, size, texture, colour and type of preservation – that serve as clues to the identity of any individual fossil organism. Excellent photographs provide a visual reference and individual entries provide essential geological information, along with biological and environmental detail about what fossils ate and where they lived. Written and researched by an expert team of paleontologists and geologists from GNS Science in Wellington, the authority of this guide is undeniable, but it is presented in a highly readable format.” (

New science books: Near-Earth Objects, J. Robert Oppenheimer, & science before Galileo

We’ve had some highly interesting new science books cross our desk in the last month. Here are our picks of the best of the best:

Syndetics book coverInside the centre : the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer / Ray Monk.
“Robert J. Oppenheimer is among the most contentious and important figures of the twentieth century. As head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, he oversaw the successful effort to beat the Nazis to develop the first atomic bomb – a breakthrough which was to have eternal ramifications for mankind, and made Oppenheimer the ‘father of the Bomb’.” (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverSymmetry and the monster : one of the greatest quests of mathematics / Mark Ronan.
“This is the story of a mathematical quest which began with a pistol duel two hundred years ago in revolutionary France, and may yet end with a deep new insight into the very fabric of our Universe. It is a story that introduces the ‘Monster’ – not monstrous at all, but a vast structure of exquisite beauty and complexity – and whose discovery involved determined characters, breakthroughs in mathematics, and curious number ‘coincidences’. And even today, it seems, the tale of the Monster is not yet over: for in its extraordinary structure we are just beginning to glimpse tantalizing hints of connections with the deep physical nature of the Universe.” (Syndetics summary)

Syndetics book coverMy beloved Brontosaurus : on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs / Brian Switek.
“In this revealing work of pop paleontology, Switek (Written in Stone) travels across America to visit dinosaur fossils, but don’t let the subtitle and descriptions of stunning scenery and trips down gravel roads mislead you-this isn’t really a travelogue: each stop serves as but a jumping-off point for an examination of our changing understanding of dinosaurs. As a child, Switek learned that his beloved Brontosaurus had been denounced as a distinct species and relabeled Apatosaurus; in the course of his travels, he learns that other dinosaurs have met a similar fate-but he doesn’t see this as something to be mourned. In fact, it’s proof of the great strides being made in the science of dinos. Along the way, Switek describes a host of colorful characters, including Heinrich Mallison, who uses digital modeling software to figure out how certain dinosaurs-particularly the troublingly spiky-tailed Kentrosaurus-had sex. He also demonstrates that contrary to the relatively dowdy dinos of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, new science suggests many were feathered, and colorfully at that” (Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverNear-Earth objects : finding them before they find us / Donald K. Yeomans.
“Humans may fret over earthquakes, nuclear meltdown, and heart attacks, but only collision with a near-Earth object has ‘the capacity to wipe out an entire civilization with a single blow.’ Balancing the wonders of astronomy with the looming potential for an epic, planetwide disaster, Yeomans, a fellow and research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explores the origins of near-Earth objects-asteroids, comets, meteors, and meteoroids-and the threat they can pose to our planet.” (Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverPaleofantasy : what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live / Marlene Zuk.
“In thoroughly engaging and witty prose, Zuk (Sex on Six Legs), a biologist from the University of California at Riverside, dismantles the pseudoscience behind nostalgic yearnings for our caveman days. As she so well notes, “Paleofantasies call to mind a time when everything about us-body, mind, and behavior-was in sync with the environment.” Zuk makes it clear that no such time ever existed – that’s simply not how evolution works. Whether she’s shredding the underlying premises of the paleo diet, the paleo exercise regimen, or the structure of the paleo family, she does so via cogent discussions of the nature of evolution and accessible elucidations of cutting-edge science.” (Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverEarthquake / Andrew Robinson.
“Despite advances in both science and engineering, and improved disaster preparedness, earthquakes continue to cause immese loss of life and damage. The Haiti earthquake of 2010 took some quarter of a million lives. No one will ever forget the catastrophic tsunami unleashed in 2011 by a magnitude-9 earthquake off the east coast of Japan – a crisis described by Japans’ prime minsiter as the most disastrous nationa l event since the atomic bomb strikes in 1945. Tokyo was largely unaffected in 2011, unlike in 1703, 1855 and 1923 when earthquakes ravaged the capital. How ling will it be bfoe the next big Tokyo earthquake? Written by a highly experienced science writer, journalist and scholar, Earthquake will appeal as much to general readers of popular science as it will to experts in many fields ” (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverIslands beyond the horizon : the life of twenty of the world’s most remote places / Roger Lovegrove.
“A bit of a geography nut, Lovegrove (former director, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; Silent Fields), has an affinity for obscure islands. For his latest book, he chose 20 of them to write about, spread across five oceans and spanning pole to pole. Some names (e.g., Guam, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, the San Blas) will be recognizable to most readers, but many more will leave them without a clue. Who among us can easily pick out Wrangel, Mykines, St. Kilda, Halfmoon, and Great Skellig on a map? In each easy-to-digest chapter, Lovegrove paints a geological and historical picture of the island then provides a thorough description of its flora and fauna, both current and extinct. (Remember the dodo?) One island is so herpetologically beset that it makes Snakes on a Plane seem like a Disney movie.” (Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverBefore Galileo : the birth of modern science in medieval Europe / John Freely.
“Freely writes here of the people who sought explanations of happenings in the natural world, as well as the works they wrote about what they found, from roughly 400 BCE to CE 1700. He charts the path of scientific movements among cultures (primarily Christian Europe and the Muslim Mediterranean and Middle East) depending on extant information of historical events and individuals, and the translations thereof. Among the small but significant events Freely discusses is how something as relatively simple as understanding and explaining the shape, angle, and colors of rainbows could prompt European science to leap radically forward.” (Library Journal)

Syndetics book coverThe cosmic tourist : vist the 100 most awe-inspiring destinations in the universe! / [Brian May, Patrick Moore, Chris Lintott].
“This tour of the universe takes in 100 sights. The authors explain each one, what it is, and how it fits into the astronomical zoo of familar and curious objects and phenomena.” (Syndetics)

New Science books

Just a few of the shiny new items that have graced my desk this month.

Syndetics book coverHubble’s universe : greatest discoveries and latest images / Terence Dickinson.
“The Hubble Space Telescope, which prolific astronomy writer Dickinson calls a remarkable discovery machine, has been orbiting the earth since 1990, inspiring many a book showcasing its astrophotography. What makes this superbly well-produced volume unique is its presentation of 300 images that have never been made public before. Dickinson’s expert and enthusiastic commentary also makes the Hubble wondrous all over again. He explains the 2009 reboot and how astronomers use a process called drizzling to create Hubble’s astonishingly sharp images, such as a staggering two-page look at a small segment of the night sky the size of a period in this book held at arm’s length, filled with thousands of galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Dickinson elucidates Hubble’s top discoveries, from proof that supermassive black holes are common in galaxies to success in measuring the universe’s expansion rate. With images of the birth and death of stars and the marvelous shapes nebulae take, reflected in such names as Helix, Jewel Box, Loch Ness, and Cat’s Eye, any engagement with this cosmic portfolio, from picture gazing to deep reading, is grandly rewarded.–Seaman, Donna Copyright 2010 BooklistFrom Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.” (Booklist) (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverThis explains everything : deep, beautiful, and elegant theories of how the world works / edited by John Brockman.
“In this latest volume of erudition from founder John Brockman (This Will Make You Smarter), the question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” serves as the prompt for over a hundred concise essays. The topics cover the gamut of the sciences while also including answers from other realms including economics and the arts. Darwin and Einstein, while not the precise subject of many answers, feature prominently as do ideas of human consciousness and cognition. As with other collections of this ilk, the essays widely vary in ease of comprehension and level of profundity. While there is no structure beyond the individual essays, occasionally a few essays in close proximity will touch on similar matters, as when Nicholas Christakis’s essay on why the sky is blue is followed by Philip Campbell’s on “The Beauty in a Sunrise”, each referencing the work of Lord Rayleigh on the scattering of light. … this collection will satisfy anyone who is looking to stretch his thinking. (adapted from the Syndetics review)

Syndetics book coverHow to build a habitable planet : the story of Earth from the big bang to humankind.
“Geochemist Langmuir (Harvard) and earth scientist Broecker (Columbia) attempt to squeeze all of natural history between two covers in this enlarged new edition (1st ed., 1985). They strike a nice balance with roughly an equal number of chapters devoted to life, earth, and extraterrestrial processes. After outlining their systems approach, they move rapidly from the formation of matter and galaxies through the formation of rocky planets like Earth and the appearance of human-like life. Chapter topics include the internal differentiation of the Earth, human resource exploitation, and detecting exoplanets with atmospheres like ours. What makes it work is the authors’ admirable job of focusing tightly on how the many processes they outline feed into life’s makeup or systems needed to support it. This necessitates summaries of subjects ranging from nuclear physics and organic chemistry to asteroid impacts. They turn many pieces of conventional wisdom on their heads along the way, e.g., arguing entropy helps explain the appearance of life rather than making it improbable. Their explanations are elegant but very terse, so readers not already well read in these fields may be challenged. The book includes several general readings after each chapter and a glossary but no detailed bibliography for further investigation. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. B. M. Simonson Oberlin CollegeCopyright American Library Association, used with permission.” (CHOICE) (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverHeart of darkness : unraveling the mysteries of the invisible universe / Jeremiah P. Ostriker and Simon Mitton.
“For Conrad, it was the Congo; for Ostriker (Formation of Structure in the Universe) and Mitton (The Young Oxford Book of Astronomy), it’s deep space, dark matter, and dark energy. In this stimulating study, the Princeton astrophysics professor and University of Cambridge scholar offer a compelling insider’s take on how astronomers have worked to reveal the mystery that is our universe. After a quick review of the long history of astronomy, the duo dive headlong into the 20th century and Einstein’s paradigm-crushing work on relativity, gravity, and time, which-coupled with technological improvements-laid the foundations for a modern cosmology based on “expansion-of vision, mind-set, and of the physical universe itself.” Indeed, the Big Bang sent galaxies racing outward, and the resulting universe is a “quantum soup” riddled with ” ‘holes,’ ‘filaments,’ and ‘walls.’ “… Ostriker and Mitton’s knowledge is vast, and while they acknowledge that our understanding of the universe is far from complete, this thought-provoking presentation is as accessible as it is exciting. (adapted from the Syndetics review)

Syndetics book coverThe where, the why, and the how : 75 artists illustrate wondrous mysteries of science / by Jenny Volvovski, Julia Rothman, and Matt Lamothe ; foreword by David Macaulay.
“Scientists and artists take on, answer, and illustrate some of the most intriguing and baffling questions in the sciences, a majority of which likely do not ever occur to most people, such as “What triggers reversals of earth’s polarity?” Readers may need a refresher on basic high school biology or chemistry, but that’s a good thing and, really, a minor distraction from what this book actually is: a work of art. The 75 illustrations that accompany each question are rich and stylistically diverse enough that the book can be read either as a well-written mini-textbook or a coffee table-worthy compendium. The authors set out to challenge our overly Wikipedi-ized minds less by explaining answers as by opening them to theorizing and wondering; it’s clear that the point is to pique curiosity and delight with beautiful visuals. Pop-science buffs will find the subject matter intriguing, and those who admire graphic novels or comic art will find a plethora of eye candy. To the book’s further credit, each artist’s website is listed opposite his or her artwork, allowing for further engagement each one’s work. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.” (Publisher Weekly) (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverInto great silence : a memoir of discovery and loss among vanishing orcas / Eva Saulitis.
“This sensitively written memoir chronicles the 25 years poet and scientist Saulitis (Leaving Resurrection) spent as a field biologist in Prince William Sound, AK. She observed a specific group of transient orcas, also known as killer whales, as they traveled through the area, photographing them, observing and recording their behavior, and listening to their vocalizations. The meticulous, detailed, even tedious nature of such work is apparent, yet Saulitis conveys her deep appreciation for the whales and their surroundings. Unfortunately, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill fouled this environment and contributed to the premature deaths of several of the orcas. A list of books about the spill, a map, a family tree of the whale population under study, and several photographs are included.” (adapted from the Syndetics review)

Syndetics book coverWonders of life / Brian Cox & Andrew Cohen.
“This is the story of the amazing diversity and adaptability of life told through the fundamental laws that govern it. Through his voyage of discovery, Brian will explain how the astonishing inventiveness of nature came about and uncover the milestones in the epic journey from the origin of life to our own lives.”–publisher website. (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverRHS Latin for gardeners : over 3000 plant names explained and explored / Lorraine Harrison.
“This illustrated guide unlocks the mysteries of botanical Latin, explaining what plant names mean and the descriptive clues they conceal.” (Syndetics)

Syndetics book coverThe year without summer : 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history / William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman.
“The violent eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, almost unnoticed by the Western world when it happened, had an enormous global impact. As much as a hundred cubic kilometers of material was ejected, creating a world-girdling cloud that reflected sunlight and changed weather everywhere. Famines and food riots spread across North America and Europe. Thousands of New England farmers, ruined by snow in June, migrated west. Irish peasants starved. The end of the world was repeatedly prophesied; religious revivals multiplied; governments tottered. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein during a rainy, cold July at a Swiss resort. J.M.W. Turner painted the spectacular sunsets created by stratospheric dust. In a world unfamiliar with climate change, where news traveled at the pace of a sailing ship, the phenomena were mysterious, seemingly God-driven, portentous, and terrifying. Popular historian William K. Klingaman and meteorologist Nicholas P. Klingaman have combined scientific and social narratives to good effect.”  (adapted from the Syndetics review)

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