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BOOK REVIEW

Built for Speed, The Book of Clouds, Signor Marconi's Magic Box and more . . .

Harold Green, Gerry Gilmore

In Built for Speed: A Year in the Life of Pronghorn (Harvard University Press, $24.95), University of Idaho zoologist John A. Byers distills 20 years of experience observing the fastest mammal in North America. At top speed, 60 mph, a pronghorn antelope can cover a football field in 10 strides. This preternatural quickness was necessary to escape North American cheetahs 10,000 years ago; today it's a luxurious relic. Byers says that a modern coyote chasing a pronghorn is "a minivan racing a Ferrari."

PronghornClick to Enlarge Image

The writer finds echoes of the Pleistocene as he follows the antelope through the events of a typical year in western Montana: birth and lactation in the spring, the formation of dominance hierarchies in summer, sexual selection during the fall rut, and a long winter of slow starvation. He also shares insightful impressions of elk, meadowlarks and other denizens of the National Bison Range.

Byers doesn't overlook the prairie's oddest inhabitant, the field biologist. He describes his early struggles to locate hidden fawns, his encounters with rattlesnakes and his occasional bafflement at seeing another human being ("What the hell is that?"). Most affectingly, the book captures the deep satisfaction Byers finds in his work, as when he watches a young fawn test its speed on a spring morning: "There is deep beauty in the sight of an animal doing what it does best."—G.R.

"Who brings on the rain?" This question, posed by Aristophanes in The Clouds, waited 2,200 years for a full answer, which required the invention of the barometer, the thermometer and finally the telegraph (which permitted simultaneous observations). Nephology, the study of clouds, is a relatively young science, but it's one that most of us can appreciate by simply looking up.

Stationery lenticular cloudClick to Enlarge Image

In The Book of Clouds (Silver Lining Books, $19.95), physicist and photographer John Day offers a primer on the hydrologic cycle and explores the atmospheric physics that explains cloud creation and cloud behavior. A typical cloud, he writes, is a galaxy of billions of condensed droplets, up to 100 million of which may be needed to form a single raindrop.

Day's photographs are here arranged by cloud family into a central portfolio, with the altitude, temperature, buoyancy and moisture content of each cloud noted. But it's easy to see why these photos have also been exhibited in galleries: Day captures cauliflower cumulus towering over the Alaskan wilderness, a river of Pacific ground fog pouring across the Golden Gate Bridge and a sunset under altocumulus setting the sky on fire.

Beyond clouds themselves, Day explores a variety of optical effects, including rainbows, halos, sun pillars and aurorae, and unusual clouds like the stationary lenticular specimen at right. It's a pleasure to learn that, even in the parlance of meteorologists, some clouds really do have silver linings.—G.R.

Guglielmo MarconiClick to Enlarge Image

On December 12, 1901, dapper, self-taught Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) ushered in the age of long-distance radio-telegraph communication when he was able to clearly pick up the letter "s" flashed across the Atlantic from Poldhu, Cornwall, to his receiver at St. John's, Newfoundland. Marconi's story has inspired generations of radio enthusiasts and is the subject of Signor Marconi's Magic Box: The Most Remarkable Invention of the 19th Century and the Amateur Inventor Whose Genius Sparked a Revolution (Da Capo, $25), by Gavin Weightman, a British filmmaker and journalist. In contrast to earlier biographies by W. P. Jolly and Giancarlo Masini, which focus in narrow detail on the inventor and the minutiae of his day-to-day operations, this book weaves into a broader tapestry both the technological and sociohistorical aspects of early wireless. Weightman's narrative begins in 1896 with a riveting account of the first public demonstration of Marconi's "black boxes" at London's Toynbee Hall, where William Preece, chief electrical engineer for the British Post Office, was lecturing on "Telegraphy without Wires," sharing the rostrum with his taciturn protégé Marconi. Preece's presentation propelled the young inventor into the media limelight, and over the next 16 years he would become a dominant figure in wireless, a position fraught with anxieties and insecurities. Indeed, the portrait of Marconi that emerges is that of a young man struggling to outstrip his competitors amid serious questions about his claim to have "invented" wireless. The book also adeptly depicts the Victorian ambience in which wireless developed and the eccentrics, charlatans and scoundrels who were part of its early history.–H.M.G.

Click to Enlarge Image

John James Audubon was vain about his looks, insecure about his artistic skills and painfully aware of his failures as a businessman. We learn much about the remarkable 19th-century artist in Audubon's Elephant: America's Greatest Naturalist and the Making of The Birds of America (Henry Holt, $27.50), by journalist Duff Hart-Davis. The elephant in question is Audubon's great book The Birds of America, so called because of its enormous size—it was in fact a double-elephant folio, consisting of four volumes, each standing more than a meter tall and weighing around 25 kilograms. Hart-Davis tells the story, based on Audubon's letters and journals, of the naturalist's exertions to publish his masterpiece, beginning in 1826 when he first left the United States for Britain. The work took 12 years to produce, as Audubon struggled to find both the money and the expertise to create the giant engravings that would do justice to his original paintings. In the end, fewer than 200 copies were produced, and each sold for about $1,000. By the end of the millennium, only 119 intact copies were known to exist. As Hart-Davis observes, Audubon made mistakes: "He missed many species, his science was faulty, and he was occasionally economical with the truth. Yet the splendour of his paintings . . . remains stunning." And that may be the final verdict. In March of 2000 a complete set of The Birds of America fetched $8.8 million at auction, and original prints of "Snowy Owl" (Nyctea scandiaca) now sell for more than $100,000.—M.S.

Humor, perhaps the most effective device in an educator's pedagogical toolbox, saturates How to Keep Dinosaurs (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $14.99), the newly revised and updated edition of Robert Mash's wry 1983 handbook. An Oxford-trained zoologist, Mash engagingly covers all aspects of this rewarding hobby, drily describing the appropriate food, housing and medical care for 58 colorfully illustrated species. Many useful pointers are included: For example, the Incisivosaurus (pictured) is noted to be well suited to life as a pet, but potential owners are advised to keep in mind its credo, rodo ergo sum ("I gnaw, therefore I am"). Parasaurolophus—a four-ton hadrosaur, or duck-bill, with a two-meter hollow crest that "acts as an acoustic resonator"—is described as "ideal for farmers living on otherwise uninhabited islands . . . a wonderful source of eggs, meat and company for the hard of hearing."

IncisivosaurusClick to Enlarge Image

Each species is also tagged with a series of icons to point out notable properties, such as "likes children" or "likes children to eat." This shorthand also identifies dinos that are "worryingly clever," "worryingly stupid" or "worryingly flatulent," so that prospective buyers can make informed choices.

The joke, although one-dimensional, doesn't grow stale over the course of this 96-page book because there is enough real information here to satisfy the curious. Mash points out sources for his dinosaurs that are based on the actual range of their fossils, and the estimates of height and weight are accurate. The behavioral characteristics, although obviously more conjectural, are consistent with the fossil record, and there are plausible launching points for his flights of fancy. Richard Dawkins, Mash's former schoolmate and drinking companion, wrote the foreword.—C.B.

M33 GalaxyClick to Enlarge Image

The study of galaxies provides a valuable peephole into the developing understanding of the universe. Those interested in peering through might want to pick up a copy of Galaxies and the Cosmic Frontier (Harvard University Press, $29.95), by distinguished astrophysicist Paul Hodge and his former student Bill Waller. The content is correct and reliable. However, the style is somewhat mixed, with jumps (from breeziness to ponderousness, say) between adjacent sentences. For example, the authors offer the sentence "Like dazzled moths, we are attracted to what we see" (referring to such beautiful objects as the M33 galaxy, left), promptly following it with "This selection effect has led to a classification system that is strongly biased toward the luminous giant spiral and elliptical galaxies." If you are happy changing gears like this, then you will appreciate the book. The subject is certainly an exciting one.—G.G.

The term fractal was invented by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, but the concept of an object with fractional dimension has roots that go much deeper into the past (as Mandelbrot himself has often noted). In Classics on Fractals, a collection of 19 papers edited by Gerald A. Edgar (Westview Press, paperback, $40), Mandelbrot's contribution comes not first but last in the chronology. The earlier chapters include the debut appearances of several now-familiar fractal objects, such as the snowflake curve of Helge von Koch and the sponge of Karl Menger. For those who wish to trace the later development of these ideas, Mandelbrot has been republishing much of his own work in a series of volumes he calls "selecta." The latest of these, Fractals and Chaos: The Mandelbrot Set and Beyond (Springer, $49.95), brings together 25 papers from the past 25 years. Many of them are related in one way or another to the famous inkblot figure to which Mandelbrot's name is now firmly affixed. Of historical interest are some early images of this fractal object, produced with a crude dot-matrix printer. A few items in the collection have not been previously published, and all are accompanied by feisty commentary.—B.H.


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