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Unlocking the Sky, The Shark Watcher's Handbook, and more

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Anyone curious about early aviation in America will enjoy Seth Shulman’s Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane (HarperCollins, $25.95), which chronicles the exploits of this mechanical genius and his competition with the Wright brothers. Like his rivals, Curtiss started out working on bicycles, to which he later attached gas engines (see below). He set a land speed record in 1904, when he attained 136 miles per hour on one of his motorcycles. His foray into aviation came by accident, when others discovered that his lightweight engines were perfect for powering dirigibles. But after joining the Aerial Experiment Association (a group pulled together by none other than Alexander Graham Bell), he went at it with zeal: Curtiss set several records and pioneered many of the techniques still used on planes today, including ailerons, tricycle landing gear and enclosed cockpits—in contrast to the Wright brothers, whose designs offered little innovation of lasting practical value. Curtiss also distinguished himself from the reclusive and litigious Ohio brothers by his dedication to openness and technological progress. Shulman gives an entertaining account of the personalities and key events, and shows a fine appreciation for irony and humor. But some airplane buffs may be disappointed to discover that this short book skims over the more technical aspects of Curtiss’s undertakings, explaining little about the aerodynamics of these machines or the engineering insights that went into their design and construction. -D.A.S.

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The headline “Shark Bites Man” always makes big news, but the real headline grabber should be the extent to which “Man Bites Shark.” People kill several million sharks a year merely to fill the Asian demand for shark fin soup (which sells for $100 a bowl in Hong Kong), and in U.S. waters, recreational boaters and fishermen have taken to shooting the animals in the head with handguns. Two new books about sharks carry a strong conservation message, primarily by fascinating the reader with these tragically misunderstood creatures. Scuba divers will be interested in The Shark Watcher’s Handbook: A Guide to Sharks and Where to See Them (Princeton University Press, $24.95), by Mark Carwardine and Ken Watterson—a detailed directory of shark-watching sites around the world, with advice on what to see and do once you get there, a field guide to identifying sharks, and chapters on photography and the dangers of swimming with the sharks. If you prefer to explore the world of sharks from the relative safety of your armchair, try The Shark Chronicles: A Scientist Tracks the ConsummatePredator (Times Books, $26.00), by John Musick and Beverly McMillan. Their explorations range from fossil-hunting field trips in 300-million-year-old sediments to floating laboratories that study shark behavior and physiology. Either book might convince a shark phobic that it’s safe to get back in the water again. Mostly harmless: a whale shark (above) and a basking shark (below), from The Shark Watcher’s Handbook.—M.S.

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The eye of the beholder determines more than just beauty. In Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (Abrams, $45), Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone demonstrates how artists rely on the mixing of human perceptions of luminance, depth, motion and color to create a desired visual effect.

This elegant, oversized book uses a combination of text, large full-color diagrams, optical illusions and paintings (putting color and black-and-white reproductions of the same picture side by side) to reveal artistic exploits in and around the color wheel. The reader learns, among other things, why the Mona Lisa’s expression seems to change as one’s gaze shifts, how Monet creates a sense of depth with low-contrast colorsand semi-repetitive patterns, and why we assign color to an object even when the color doesn’t conform to the object’s outline, as seen below in Raoul Dufy’s Still Life with Violin, Hommage to Bach (1952).

Livingstone’s account of the biology of vision is lucid and illuminating. Her book serves as a welcome introduction to a field that’s interesting to read about, but even more compelling to witness.—F.D.

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As national borders yield to increasing international trade, the accelerated introduction of invasive plants and animals threatens to blight and homogenize global landscapes faster than McDonald’s. In A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines: The Growing Threat of Species Invasions (Island Press, $25), which was commissioned by the Global Invasive Species Programme of the United Nations, Yvonne Baskin surveys the economic and ecological damage of bioinvasions worldwide and highlights some initiatives intended to reduce their associated risks.

Baskin first chronicles how centuries of human activity have altered the environment for better and worse. Nile perch fortify the fishing industry around Africa’s Lake Victoria, but push native fish to apparent extinction. Kudzu vines reduce soil erosion while smothering indigenous plants. And ships carry unintended cargosuch as the zebra mussel, a mollusk that spreads—and wreaks havoc—by attaching to almost any solid surface in the water, such as the pipe pictured below.

Baskin’s balanced, if occasionally repetitive, account reveals the difficulty of determining which species pose threats. But preventive efforts such as screening initiatives, which could be funded by contributions from industries that benefit from international trade and travel, are clearly more effective than damage control.—F.D.

The laying of the transatlantic cable has been called the 19th century’s equivalent of the moon landing in the 20th, yet even that simile will not prepare you for the travails detailed in John Steele Gordon’s A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Walker, $26.00). Fourteen years after taking on what he imagined to be a year’s task, the cable’s staunchest supporter, Cyrus Field, admitted on its completion, “God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish.” It took more than a year, and a third of the New York, Newfoundland, and London Telegraph Company’s capital, to wire just the dry crossing of Newfoundland alone. Gordon offers much more than a page-turner, however. He deftly weaves storms, repeated cable breaks and multiple refinancings into the business and cultural climate of the day—a time when the Industrial Revolution gathered unstoppable momentum and the United States emerged as a nation of innovation and ambition.—D.R.S.

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