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Really Useful, Sex in Advertising, and more . . .

VelcroClick to Enlarge Image

We need look no further than our own homes and offices to find a veritable museum of technology—or so posits Joel Levy in the introduction to Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things (Firefly Books, $24.95). Reading his lavishly illustrated museum guide, one is easily convinced. Here Levy provides capsule histories of everything from bar codes to brassieres, from laser printers to lawn mowers. Along the way he provides abundant insights into the machines and appliances that surround us. Who knew, for example, that Velcro (right) was invented by a Swiss mountaineer, Georges de Mestral, who noticed the tenacity of the cockleburs that collected on his clothing during a fateful Alpine hike in 1948? And who would have guessed that early on the Chinese used tinted glasses not to screen out glare but to hide the eyes of judges? Those with even a passing interest in the historical roots of such familiar devices will find Levy’s book delightfully informative.—D.A.S.

Betty Crocker cake mix adClick to Enlarge Image Close-up of Betty Crocker cake mix adClick to Enlarge Image

According to Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, $65 cloth, $29.95 paper), roughly one-fifth of all advertising uses overt sexual content to sell a product. Editors Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase have brought together a collection of 15 essays by scholars in the humanities and the sciences to cover such topics as the history of sexuality in advertising, our physiological and psychological responses to the sexy ads, and current trends in the “art.” One of the more interesting essays, written by Wilson Bryan Key, explores the subliminal sexual content in advertising. Some of it is outrageous: Consider the magazine ad for Betty Crocker’s cake mix that has an anatomically correct vulva sculpted into the chocolate icing (immediate left). Key, who takes for granted that subliminal advertising actually works, focuses on the fact that advertisers (and many consumers) continue to deny its existence. He argues that media-driven fantasies have become dominant forces in our lives. These ideas, and others in the book, offer a disturbing view of our cultural landscape. Whether or not one agrees with the authors’ conclusions, they do provide interesting food for thought. Incidentally, the piece of cake on the fork (far left) is a painting, not a photograph.—M.S.

Two representations of a figure-eight knotClick to Enlarge Image

"Knots are trendy,” writes Alexei Sossinsky. They’ve even been discovered by postmodernists, “with their typical nerve and incompetence.” Sossinsky’s Knots: Mathematics with a Twist (Harvard University Press, $24.95) is no less trendy and nervy (but competent). Early chapters review some of the standard topics in the mathematical theory of knots—how to count and classify them, how to tell whether two knots are the same—but Sossinsky can’t wait to get on to the newer and trendier themes, especially connections between knots and physics. There is an account of Louis Kauffman’s discovery of how to tie a knot that mimics the atomic structure of a magnetic material, with the over-and-under crossings of the tangled thread matching the up-and-down spins of the atoms. And the final chapter departs for an even weirder world where the strings being tied in knots are those of topological quantum field theory—very trendy indeed.

Sossinsky is an editor of Kvant, the excellent Russian magazine of science and mathematics. Knots is translated from the French by Giselle Weiss, with simple but very effective line drawings by Margaret C. Nelson. At right are two representations of a figure-eight knot.—B.H.

Ernst Freiherr Stromer von ReichenbachClick to Enlarge Image

The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt (Random House, $24.95) tells two stories in parallel of successful fieldwork in the Western Desert of Egypt. The primary story is that of Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach, a slight, fastidious, plainspoken nobleman and paleontologist, who in 1911 stumbled onto some large dinosaur bones at Bahariya Oasis. Excavations over the next three years uncovered fossil remains that Stromer later identified as representing several new species, including a theropod he called Bahariasaurus ingens (whose femur Stromer is shown holding). Stromer’s discoveries were overshadowed, and then obliterated, by events of the two world wars (the bones he found were destroyed when the RAF bombed Munich in 1944); they drew little attention in his lifetime, and for 86 years his sites remained unvisited by dinosaur collectors.

Then in January of 2000 a new expedition following in Stromer’s footsteps was launched on the initiative of a paleontology graduate student, Josh Smith (with whom writer William Nothdurft coauthored this book). Smith and colleagues, funded by filmmakers, found the largest Saharan dinosaur yet and named it Paralititan (“giant near the sea”) stromeri. Bravo! Readers will gain an appreciation of the history of the Earth and find fascinating food for reflection in the cultural contrasts between the German, Egyptian and American paleontologists who are featured.—D.R.

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