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Short takes on three books

Anna Lena Phillips, Morgan Ryan, Greg Ross

POTATO: A History of the Propitious Esculent. John Reader. Yale University Press, $28.

Click to Enlarge ImageIn 1770, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier wrote a prize-winning “Inquiry into Nourishing Vegetables That in Times of Necessity Could Be Substituted for Ordinary Food.” The principal “nourishing vegetable” in his mind was the potato. Soon this humble tuber, a relative newcomer to European diets, would be served to Louis XVI, king of France—a far way from its origins in the Andes, where people had begun to domesticate it more than 7,500 years earlier.

In Potato, John Reader moves from those origins to trace the plant’s adoption into diets and agricultural systems around the world. He weaves together broad analysis and rich detail, including lively quotations from historical sources. Reader’s account of the Irish potato famine is both heartbreaking and carefully thought out. He does not neglect the role of political regimes in the unfolding of this and other food shortages and famines. And he notes that, even in times of relative plenty, the introduction of the potato has allowed poor people to survive but has rarely lifted them out of poverty.

There is a shadow history here too: that of the pathogen that precipitated the Irish potato famine. As Solanum tuberosum and its various relatives were carried across oceans and planted with care, Phytophthora infestans followed invisibly, on the wind, in cargo holds, traveling unnoticed until conditions were right for it to thrive.

Even as he covers this vast territory, Reader finds plenty of time to ponder methods of storing butter in 16th-century Ireland and Russian botanist Nicolay Vavilov’s knowledge of plant genetics. Only the book’s final chapter—which attempts to combine the history of the potato with that of 20th-century China and to draw conclusions about the future of agriculture—feels rushed. On the whole, Potato is much like its subject: substantial, pleasant and filling.—Anna Lena Phillips

GAITHER’S DICTIONARY OF SCIENTIFIC QUOTATIONS. 2 volumes. Edited by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither. Springer, cloth $199, DVD $24.95.

There’s a lot to imbibe here: 18,000 shot glasses of scientific wisdom, personality, comedy, rue and exultation. I applaud the scholarly doggedness of the compilers and the commitment of the publisher, who accommodated the project with two heavy, well-produced volumes. This is an incredible feat of gathering and curating.

It would be unbalanced to call out a few gems—they’re all here. Readers will find the expected heirlooms from Dobzhansky, Haldane, Einstein and Darwin, plus plenty of surprises from Shakespeare to Twain to Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the inclusion of writers who haven’t quite barged into the canon—lots of them.

How much room is given to the pastoral mooing that afflicted the early editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—the lesser Tennyson, Cowpers and that ilk? Some—but perhaps the inclusion of a smattering is a scholarly duty. Here the dross is minimal, and the riches are high-grade ore.

Yet the organization of this collection is, frankly, strange. Sixteen hundred topics in alphabetical order, and under each an array of quotations. The flow of alphabetical headings illustrates the problem: calorie, cancer, candle, catalogue, catastrophe—and then, bumping into each other, causality, causation, cause and effect. The scheme for sorting is as unexpected as the haul of wisdom itself. Where to fit Hans von Baeyer’s “Compared to the electron, even a platypus is banal”? Electron? Monotreme?—No, see the seven-page entry on quantum mechanics.

One may quibble with how the editors have chosen to arrange the contents, but they had an impossible job. What’s important is the chorus of voices they have assembled—generations of seekers, each speaking in turn. It hardly matters how they line up on the risers.—Morgan Ryan

DECODING THE HEAVENS: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer—and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets. Jo Marchant. Da Capo Press, 2009. $25.

Click to Enlarge ImageIn the autumn of 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient ship near the Greek islet of Antikythera. Among the statues, swords and armor that they recovered was a curious piece of corroded clockwork that has become known as the Antikythera mechanism.

Investigation has shown that the device’s 30 interlocking gear wheels could predict eclipses, track the paths of the sun and moon through the zodiac and perhaps even trace the movements of the five planets known to the ancient Greeks. To all appearances the instrument was the world’s first analog computer. But it predates the earliest medieval clockwork by more than a thousand years. Who designed it? How? And why have no other such devices been found?

In Decoding the Heavens, science journalist Jo Marchant recounts efforts over the past century to address these questions, using astronomy, mathematics and increasingly sophisticated technology. Her account is engagingly human, detailing the quirks, obsessions and ego clashes that have developed among scientists and engineers who have devoted careers and sometimes fortunes to understanding the instrument.

Their inquiries have been largely successful, but the Antikythera mechanism is still yielding up secrets: Just last year it was suggested that one dial might have been used to track the timing of the Greek Olympics. Marchant’s tale captures both the endless elusiveness of the past and our ever-evolving attempts to understand it.—Greg Ross



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