Galileo's Daughter, Thomas Henry Huxley: The Evolution of a Scientist and more . . .
Galileo's life, works and confrontation with the Catholic Church have occasioned several bestsellers over the years. Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (Walker, $27) might well prove the most successful as it capitalizes not only on the drama of the rambunctious Florentine martyr but also on his nun of a daughter, Maria Celeste, whose 124 letters to her father—written between 1623 and her death 11 years later—form the core of the book. Author of another recent bestseller, Longitude, Sobel skillfully weaves together elements of the familiar Galileo story with the "silent voice" of the cloistered daughter who adored her father and was, in turn, mourned by him as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me."
There has been a renaissance of late in the study of T. H. Huxley, affectionately known as "Darwin's Bulldog," including Adrian Desmond’s masterpiece of a biography that is all but ignored in Sherrie L. Lyons's Thomas Henry Huxley: The Evolution of a Scientist (Prometheus, $54.95)—and worse yet is attributed to another author on the back-cover blurb! Hers, however, is purported to focus less on the man and his times than on Huxley's scientific ideas and his contribution to modern evolutionary theory.
For advanced starwatchers, Ajit Kembhavi and Jayant Narlikar have written an up-to-date description of the physics of the central regions of galaxies in Quasars and Active Galactic Nuclei: An Introduction (Cambridge, $36.95). It is moderately technical and compares theoretical models to the latest astronomical observations of active galactic nuclei.
Isaac Newton's claim has become part of scientific lore: that he made most of the propositions of the Principia using calculus he had discovered years before and subsequently translated into the more common geometrical language to comply with accepted canons of intelligibility. The verity of the assertion is analyzed in Niccol? Guicciardini's Reading the Principia: The Debate on Newton’s Mathematical Methods for Natural Philosophy from 1687 to 1736 (Cambridge, $80), which offers a careful examination of Newton's mathematical methods and of the way the Principia was read both in England and on the Continent during the half century before the 1736 publication of Leonhard Euler's Mechanica.
John Darnton's novel The Experiment (Dutton, $24.95) is fun, fast-paced and far-fetched, with a pretzel of a plot that ultimately gets in the way of its intriguing ideas. Darnton's villains are scientists who start a farm of human clones harvested for organs, and the novel is at its most entertaining when it discusses the science and philosophy of cloning, twin studies and life extension. The conspiracy, alas, strains all credibility. This is a timely treatment of a budding technology that needs fewer twists and more believable characters but nonetheless is thought provoking.
Midwestern natural historians should note two major works on Illinois fauna and flora. Waterfowl of Illinois: Status and Management (Illinois Natural History Survey, $59.95) documents a century of research along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and in the state’s marshes and swamps. Among the waterfowl covered are the mallard, wood duck, hooded merganser and the lesser snow goose. More than 80 species of ferns grace Robert H. Mohlenbrock's The Illustrated Flora of Illinois: Ferns, 2nd ed. (Southern Illinois University Press, $39.95). Habitat descriptions, range maps and full-page illustrations make this book invaluable to anyone concerned with native plants.
Ostensibly for teenagers, Black Holes, Wormholes & Time Machines (Institute of Physics, $16.50) by Jim Al-Khalili presents the most interesting ideas from modern physics, which, when well presented, are the very best in mind candy. Just as the difference between fine chocolate and the mass-produced stuff is obvious, a popular science book this well crafted is a rare treat, even if you don’t happen to be a teenager. Al-Khalili treats science writing as an exacting art form and has created prose that is as lighthearted as play, as clear as crystal and deep enough to stimulate the mind without drowning it in detail. A good test for any book is to open it at random and see if it engages one's interest. But don't do this with Al-Khalili's masterpiece. It's so engaging, you will start reading from the middle and not be able to stop.
Stepping Stones, the Making of Our Home World (Oxford, $35) by Stephen Drury weaves the formation of the planets, continents, life, extinctions and ice ages into a somewhat heavy tome. Still, this is ideal for the young, serious student who isn't afraid of mixing detailed chemistry, physics, geology and biology with few metaphors.
C. Wylie Poag's Chesapeake Invader, Discovering America's Giant Meteorite Crater (Princeton, $24.95) is a practical look at the application and unforeseen direction of geology and paleontology. Thirty-five million years ago the American Eastern seaboard was the site of an impact by a meteor. This semi-autobiographical drama looks at the discovery of the meteorite crater in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay. By understanding the results of the impact, local, contemporary issues like groundwater supply are now more clearly understood.
Nanoviewers: Jim Barlow, Randall Black, Lil Chappell, William Dietrich, Mordechai Feingold, Scott Harder, Mercedes Lopez-Morales, Tim Tokaryk