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BOOK REVIEW

A Field Guide to Sprawl, Astonishing Animals and more

David Schneider, Roger Harris, Kate Scholberg, Amos Esty

From A Field Guide to SprawlClick to Enlarge Image

Field guides to plants abound, but where can an amateur (un)naturalist find something to lead him or her through the jungle of terms used in modern land development? Dolores Hayden's A Field Guide to Sprawl (W. W. Norton, $24.95) provides such a resource. This little book offers "An Illustrated Vocabulary of Sprawl," which invokes low-level aerial photography (by Jim Wark) to help define such cryptic terms as LULU (locally unwanted land use), TOAD (temporary, obsolete, abandoned or derelict) site and duck (a building that replicates—and thus serves as an advertisement for—the product sold within it). Readers are also treated to examples of some more familiar language, including interstate, strip, landfill and gridlock (shown right). More important, Hayden's 10 pages of introductory material, titled "Decoding Everyday American Landscapes," gives the reader some background on the forces that helped to shape the more or less off-putting features so intriguingly displayed in the material that follows. Although the book is successful in illustrating the many things we Americans have done wrong in shaping the countryside around us, it would have been nice to see at least a few examples of development carried out in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. Perhaps A Field Guide to Neo-Urbanism is yet to come.—D.A.S.

From Astonishing AnimalsClick to Enlarge Image

The fauna that populate Astonishing Animals: Extraordinary Creatures and the Fantastic Worlds They Inhabit (Atlantic Monthly Press, $29.95) are beautiful, bizarre, marvelous and, yes, astonishing. The book is reminiscent of a medieval bestiary illustrated with fabulous mythical creatures. But these animals are real enough, each brought to life through artist Peter Schouten's vivid illustrations.

Author Tim Flannery writes engagingly about the 97 unusual species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish depicted here. He describes their taxonomic affiliations, geographic ranges and behavior but does not treat these topics systematically. Rather, he highlights the particular feature of the animal that merits its inclusion in the book, such as the "amazing red face" (above right) of the white uakari (Cacajao calvus calvus), a short-tailed monkey of the Amazon rain forest of northeastern Brazil, whose natives have nicknamed it "Englishman." Flannery's occasionally irreverent approach sometimes leads him to make observations that are more humorous than scientific—for example, his remark that "surely the uakari's bald head has more in common with a chimpanzee's buttocks than an Englishman's face?"

This book is a pure delight, a treasure for anyone with a penchant for the weird and wonderful. It will also appeal to biology teachers who want to inspire their charges with the extraordinary beauty and variety of the living world, and to science illustrators, who will appreciate Schouten's consummate artistry.—R.H.

Hans Bethe and Boyce McDanielClick to Enlarge Image

Although the "jewels in the crown" of U.S. high-energy physics may be Fermilab's Tevatron and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) and its leading particle detector, CLEO, have been a consistently bright presence. Karl Bekelman's technical memoir, A Personal History of CESR and CLEO (World Scientific, $52), chronicles 30 years of triumphs and disappointments. The National Science Foundation-supported facility's technological innovations and its contributions to physics have earned it a firm place in history.

Beginning in the postwar years, Cornell hosted a series of shrewdly designed synchrotrons of increasingly high beam energies. By 1980, the CESR electron-positron collider and its associated detectors were churning out data. For a while, CESR held colliding-beam luminosity records; CLEO's accomplishments include the discovery of several new mesons and quark transitions. A flood of activity in heavy-quark and lepton physics at accelerators around the world continues today.

Bekelman describes both the technical and the social issues that have driven events. He tells how the courage to take risks and commit errors led to clever, cost-saving technologies. He also reveals that the group of CLEO physicists, the "most democratic" of collaborations, sometimes became paralyzed in its decision making, yet found its greatest strength in the devoted loyalty of its younger scientists. High-energy physicists will learn much from this fascinating narrative. (Above right, Hans Bethe and Boyce McDaniel bicycle around Cornell's 10-GeV synchrotron ring just after its completion in 1967.)—K.S.

In Boiling Point (Basic Books, $22), Ross Gelbspan, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who in 1997 wrote The Heat Is On, presents an updated offering to join the growing library of recent books aimed at warning the public about the potentially dire effects of global climate change. His new book bears the alarming subtitle "How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster." This sort of tabloid-style self-description is bound to lessen the appeal of Boiling Point for sober-minded readers, no matter how concerned they might be about global warming, but the book is certainly worth reading.

Perhaps the most interesting of Gelbspan's points concerns the role that journalists have played in muting the message of the majority of scientists about the massive and mostly negative effects of global warming. Despite a wide variety of carefully documented reports by scientific experts published both in the United States and in international forums since the 1980s, journalists have continued to report on global warming science using their own version of balanced coverage—one expert "for" and one expert "against." Gelbspan convincingly fleshes out how notions of neutral reporting are perverted by well-meaning journalists. In the context of global warming, dissenting scientists are becoming harder and harder to find, but their opposing views have frequently been treated as meriting the same weight and authority as those of the vast majority of scientists working in the field. The public is left in a quandary about what the evidence actually shows. Under these circumstances, perhaps Gelbspan and his editors believe that hyperbolic book subtitles are a necessary evil.—L.S.

From Sea TurtlesClick to Enlarge Image

Biologist James R. Spotila's passion for his subject permeates Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation (The Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95). Such enthusiasm is infectious. Spotila, a leading sea turtle researcher, describes in some detail the creatures' life cycles, physiology, evolutionary history and conservation. He then devotes a chapter to each of seven species (green turtles, hawksbills, Olive Ridleys, Kemp Ridleys, loggerheads, flatbacks and leatherbacks), discussing distribution, natural history and conservation status in some depth. Quirky anecdotes lighten the prose. Tables of data are often paired with maps to add geographical perspective. Fascinating sidebars highlight the work of well-known sea turtle researchers and conservationists.

The accessible text is beautifully illustrated with numerous color photographs, like the one (above right) of an Australian flatback (Natator depressus) hatchling. Lay readers will be captivated. The book's review of what scientists know about these charismatic but woefully endangered creatures is substantial enough to interest biologists and conservationists as well.—R.H.

From The World of Gerard MercatorClick to Enlarge Image

Picture a world map and you'll probably picture the Mercator projection, with its parallel meridians and vast polar regions. In The World of Gerard Mercator (Walker and Company, $26), historian Andrew Taylor records the studious life of a Flemish cartographer who literally reconceived the world.

Since Ptolemy's time, mapmakers have struggled to represent the globe on a flat surface with minimum distortion. Mercator's cylindrical projection of 1569 revolutionized geography by spacing out the higher latitude lines. Now places could assume their proper positions, the true shapes of the continents emerged, and a navigator could plot an accurate course on paper. A straight line on the map equated to a constant course at sea.

With impeccable research, Taylor shows Mercator standing on the threshold between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, his life shaped as much by the Inquisition and the Black Death as by Columbus and Copernicus. The pious cartographer seemed not to realize the value of his invention, but soon it transformed marine charts, and 400 years later it was mapping Mars. "His projection was a triumph of modern thought in a world still concentrating on the wisdom of ancient times," Taylor writes. "And it survived."—G.R.

From Reef MadnessClick to Enlarge Image

Alexander Agassiz spent much of his life quietly disagreeing with two of the world's most famous scientists: Louis Agassiz (his father) and Charles Darwin. The elder Agassiz gained renown for his eloquent descriptions of how nature revealed God's workings, a position that served him well until Darwin's theory of natural selection revolutionized the way scientists looked at the world. The younger Agassiz agreed with the central tenets of evolution, accepting that Darwin had the preponderance of evidence on his side in that argument. But when it came to coral-reef formation, he disagreed with Darwin almost as vehemently as his father had in opposing evolutionary theory.

In Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Pantheon Books, $25), David Dobbs uses the debate over coral-reef formation to sketch the intriguing intersection of the Agassiz family with Darwin. Darwin arrived at his coral-reef theory before ever seeing a reef in person. Alexander Agassiz, who believed that Darwin's theoretical ruminations were simply shoddy science, spent the last 30 years of his life traveling the globe to collect empirical evidence to support his own theory. He died in 1910, but it was not until 1950 that the matter was settled. (The photograph of Agassiz shown above right was taken in about 1900.)

For those who already know how the reefs form, Dobbs's tale will lack scientific suspense. However, it is still worth reading for its account of the lives of its main characters and the ways their careers represented the transition from the Victorian to the modern era of science.—A.E.

How to Clone the Perfect Blonde (Quirk, $16.95) has a catchy title that is as likely to elicit a grimace as a grin, but it's a surprisingly successful volume, which has fun with its tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top premise. The book contains eight separate essays, including the one from which the book draws its title. Authors Sue Nelson and Richard Hollingham play to an audience of curious dreamers and science-fiction fans with such chapters as "How to Build a Robotic Servant" and "How to Live Forever." The articles average about 30 pages each, and the content is fairly substantial, especially considering the authors' efforts to make it all witty and engaging for a broad audience. A semester's worth of fundamental concepts are sketched out in sidebars and asides, which open up the discussion of more recent advances in molecular biology, genomics, consciousness, artificial intelligence, computing, high-energy physics and cosmology. Scientists may find the shtick irksome after a while, but a surfeit of wry jokes is a cheap price to pay for a page-turning review of real science for the general public.—C.B.

 

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