Tag Archives: Book Review

The Science of Monsters

The edges of old maps, the gateways to parts unknown, are often said1 to have carried the words “Here Be Dragons”. At the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, there was plenty of room for those dragons to roam. Each human culture around the globe was surrounded by a fog of geographic and metaphysical unknowns. Since that time, science has destroyed the habitat of those dragons in a steadily process 2.

The central question of Matt Kaplan’s book, The Science of Monsters, is really focused, not on the monsters, but on us. Why did we populate that fog of unknowns with fabulous creatures that evoked fear and awe? Do we still tell similar stories after the fog has been lifted? If we do, how have the stories changed to reflect our new reality? The Science of Monsters is ultimately about our favorite monster – us. Continue reading

What I Don’t Know About Flyingfish

Steve N. G. Howell’s The Amazing World of Flyingfish plays with the concept that eveyone “knows” about flyingfish as a way to highlight the huge gaps in our knowledge about these iconic fish. Those areas of ignorance can have dramatic and direct impacts on conservation and sustainable fishing issues.

At its heart, The Amazing World of Flyingfish is a book of pictures – beautiful and hard-won pictures (photographing flyingfish in flight is apparently, but not surprisingly, challenging). The images are not just aesthetically pleasing. They serve Howell’s major theme, contrasting the known with the unknown.

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

On one hand, flyingfish are common and well-known. On the other hand, we do not necessarily know that much about their life history, development, or how many species their really are. Howell uses this contrast between the known and unknown to discuss different aproaches to research. The benefits of briefly viewing live animals behaving in their natural environment are compared to detailed laboratory analyses of preserved specimens in a way that shows the value of both approaches. The problems posed by limited knowledge of species identity for conservation and sustainable fishing are discussed with a thoughtful approach to the value of common usage versus scientific naming.

And, if those issues do not interest you, the book is filled with over 90 gorgeous photos of flyingfish in action, revealing aspects of these animals that were entirely new to me.

The dynamic of known versus unknown played out when my six-year-old joined me in looking over this book. The beauty of the images and the name “flyingfish” immediately captured our attention. Then we got curious.

As I am not an expert in flyingfish, fish, nor any set of multicellular organisms, that meant we were rapidly going to bump into the familiar territory of “things to which Daddy does not know the answer”.  This is fun territory, because we get to go on the journey from “not knowing” to “knowing” together.

We asked the question, “Do they really fly?” We learned that you cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes/no”. We first had to decide what we meant by “fly”. We were learning about the process of asking and answering questions.

When Howell discusses the difficulty of pairing juvenille specimens with adults in terms of species identity, we talked about physiological changes in appearance during development and the expectation that her own body would change as she grew.

One image, however, did not draw us in. The altered image of a human-sized, trophy-style flyingfish confused and distracted. Instead of discussing the fascinating biology of flyingfish, I had to explain that the huge fish was not real, the ethics (or lack thereof) of trophy fishing, and Photoshop. The worst effect was that it planted a seed of doubt about the veracity of the book’s other photos in my child’s mind.

Nothing, for us, could compate to the realization that some flyingfish have butterfly-like patterns on their transluscent wings/fins*. Howell connects this delightful discovery to the larger problem of species identification, which is vital to conservation efforts. Apparently, the patterns do not survive the preservation of specimens, leading to a divergence in what one sees in the wild and what is analyzed in the laboratory. For Howell, the species identification problem cascades into many unknowns regarding flyingfish life history, population sizes, distribution, and seasonal variation.

For us, the conversation started by those beautiful wing patterns touched on the importance of different people with different interests and experiences communicating with each other. We even talked about what we can do to build knowledge when no one know the information we need. In other words, we can draw a direct, curiosity driven line between that image of yellow and black spotted flyingfish wings/fins* that you can see above and reinforcement of the scientific method. Not bad for a book with only 45-pages in it.

*I was informed by my precocious offspring that I am not allowed to call them “fings”.

DISCLOSURE: Josh Witten was provided with a review copy of The Amazing World of Flyingfish by Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press had no input or influence over the decision to review this book or the content of this review.

Science for the People: Science Up Your Holidays 2014

sftp-square-fistonly-whitebgThis week, Science for the People observes its annual holiday tradition, helping you find gifts for the science lovers on your list. Brian Clegg, John Dupuis, and Rachelle Saunders share their most-treasured science books from 2014, as well as classics to help fill out anyone’s science library. And they speak to writer/illustrator James Lu Dunbar about “The Universe Verse,” a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe.

Visit the Science for the People blog for more information and links to the books mentioned in this episode.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

Apocalypse 1896: Gabriel Tarde and the Fortunate Catastrophe

Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)

Cave1In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Wells’ pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.

But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement. Continue reading

Eric H. Cline’s “1177BC”: Bronze Age Bogeymen & the Fate of Civilization

Representative image of the precautions needed to protect my creative endeavors. Surviving photograph shows use of a Lite Brite

Representative image of the precautions needed to protect my creative endeavors. Surviving photograph shows use of a primitive Lite Brite

When I was young, I used to build elaborate castles out of wooden blocks. Then, my younger brother Ben, would come running through and smash it all to pieces. Ben was a metaphor for the way my high school history book1 presented a variety of groups like the Mongols, the Huns, the Vikings, and the Sea Peoples (oddly not the Conquistadors, etc.) as nightmarish, irresistible, and bent on wanton destruction. Like my brother, they were external forces of chaos that swept in, pushed “Western Civilization” to the breaking point, and then mysteriously vanished. Of these groups, the Sea Peoples distance in the past made them, by far, the most mysterious.

In Eric H. Cline’s 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed2 does not set out to clarify the record on the Sea Peoples – they remain pretty clouded in the mists of time. Rather, Cline walks us through what historians know, suspect, and argue about. Cline’s goal is to help us understand what collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, what “collapse” actually meant, why it was so important, and what were the factors that caused this change. Continue reading