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BOOK REVIEW

Mapping the Universe, Mississippi Musings, Deep-Sea Dwellers and more....

Celestial Treasury: From the Music of the Spheres to the Conquest of Space (Cambridge, $59.95), by
two French astrophysicists, Marc Lachièze-Rey and Jean-Pierre Luminet, is an oversize volume that contains many colorful reproductions of medieval sky maps, artistic expressions and scientific images, which chronicle humanity's cÅnturies-long attempt to understand and map the universe. The ancient and the modern are woven together throughout the book, as exemplified by a page in which Albrecht Dürer's 16th-century etching Melancholia lies next to a classification of elementary particles based on the theory of supersymmetry. The book is clearly a labor of love, combining a considerable depth of scholarship with an accessible text that should appeal to a broad range of readers. Below is a representation by the 19th-century French caricaturist J.-J. Grandville of a planet as a woman draped in a diaphanous gown surrounded by cherublike moons.

 

Mark Twain called her "the
body of the nation." She is the Mississippi River, a young, temperamental, "lawless stream" that gave the South its precious topsoil and ravaged cities with floods of biblical proportions. Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha pay tribute to the mighty Mississippi with their visually glorious book Mississippi Floods: Designing a Shifting Landscape (Yale, $45). This is anything but a book about floods. Mathur and da Cunha use the meanders, flows and basins of the Mississippi to tell America's history with the river. Focusing on the Army Corps of Engineers, which tries (to this day) to tame the river, the book also tells the story of the Mississippi's diverse products—such as plantation slaves, the Delta Blues and sugarcane crops. Alongside this narrative, in the margins and on foldout pages, are silk-screen prints, traditional media artwork, photographs and antique maps, all of which not only instruct but also mesmerize the reader with their undeniable beauty. These alone are well worth the cover price. Shown is a Landsat digital mosaic of the Memphis-Vicksburg region of the Mississippi alluvial valley.

 

Real-life sea monsters—both the beautiful and the hideous—are brought to light in Creatures of the Deep(Firefly Books, $40), by science writer Erich Hoyt. Filled with spectacular photographs, this book could serve as a training manual for exobiologists—these beasts are just too weird to be part of our world. This is more than a picture book, however: Hoyt's elegant writing provides both the historical background for deep-sea explorations and an ecological perspective on life in the ocean's depths. The surpassing ugliness and the graceful beauty of the deep-sea dwellers is evident in two examples from Hoyt's book: A living jack-o-lantern—the deep-sea anglerfish Melanocetus johnsonii (above)—cruises the depths below 200 meters, luring prey with a "fishing pole" that grows from its head, and a giant bioluminescent jellyfish, Periphylla periphylla (below), up to 50 centimeters across, sashays through the darkness below 4,000 meters.

 

Volcanoes in America's National Parks (Odyssey Press, $24.95) is full of pictures, but it's not a picture book. It is a compact yet highly authoritative compendium of information about the volcanoes that provide some of the most spectacular scenery in the nation. The subject is admirably coýered by authors Barbara Decker, a science writer, and Robert Decker, who formerly taught geophysics at Dartmouth and served as Scientist-in-Charge of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Whereas other guides to these touristic hot spots might also point out interesting facts (for example, that Oregon's Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States or that Yellowstone National Park contains fully one half of the world's geysers), few would give readers as thorough an education in geology. Here one learns about the silica content of magma and its effects on viscosity and explosivity. One discovers that some volcanic edifices (like Haleakala in Hawaii) are so immense that the very earth under them bends downward considerably under their great weightç Captivating photos adorn the pages (Pu'u O'o vent, Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, which has been erupting since 1983, is shown below), and much practical information for traveling to the parks discussed is set off for handy reference.

Is it worth it to keep precious animals behind bars just so we can stare at them, our mouths agape? Many of us visit zoos and leave with a sense of wonder (and sometimes sadness) about the animals therein, but rarely do we learn much about the animals' natural history through our visits.

In A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future (California, $35), David Hancocks gives us an engaging tour through the history of the world's zoological parks, from the 16th-century zoos of the Mogul Empire to the Bronx Zoo of today. Hancocks, an architect and zoo director for more than 30 years, usýs the history to provide us with a record of our failures and successes with zoos around the world. (The pigtailed macaque below was photographed at the Johore Bahru Zoo in Malaysia in 1988.) He forces us to consider the worth and purpose of zoos in modern society from an animal welfare and conservation perspective. Ultimately, he argues, zoos must advocate and protect the world's fauna; they should be used to demonstrate the interdependency of all life forms.

 

 

The discovery of fossils of Mesozoic vertebrates in northern Asia was essentially a drama of the 20th century, as a wave of exploration spread from Permo-Triassic strata along the eastern slopes of the Urals to Cretaceous badlands eroding within the semiýrid plains of southern Mongolia. Near the Urals, archaic faunas were dominated by clumsy animals, including the oldest vertebrate herbivores; in Mongolia the more "modern" faunas included gracile dinosaurs and their descendants, the birds. The Cretaceous animals were found to exhibit Asian-American relationships, and fossil hunters of the "wild East" felt the proximity of the ancient "wild West." ,The Age of Dinosaurs in Russia and Mongolia,ûedited by Michael J. Benton and others (Cambridge, $140), synthesizes scholarly literature reporting where paleontologists prospected and how they classified what they found. The first 10 chapters provide an interesting overview of vertebrates of the Permo-Triassic, and the remaining 20 summarize those of the 
Cretaceous. The 5 chapters on dinosaurs cover pterosaurs, theropods, ornithopods, pachycephalosaurs and ceratopsians, and ankylosaurs. Shown are some sauropod eggs found in the south Gobi in 1969.

 

 

As the title suggests, there is nothing comforting about the contents of Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe (Delta, new in paper, $13.95). Michael Osterholm, a world-renowned expert in the field, teamed up with Washington Post reporter John Schwartz long before September's terrorist attacks in an effort to explain that America is overdue for a confrontation with bioterrorism and is completely unprepared. Fictional narratives preceding each chapter show how just one person, wiýh a little training in microbiology, could bring on immense suffering. Chilling revelations from former Russian bioweapons researchers illustrate, all too clearly, the accessibility of anthrax, botulinum toxin and, most frightening of all, smallpox. These organisms can be stored in modified fountain pens, brought without incident through high-security checkpoints and cultivated into weapons of mass destruction with only mail-order lab equipment. Osterholm and Schulz leave us with a list of recommendations that, if what they say is true, should become the mantra of politicians everywhere.

Nanoviewers: Noah Eisenkraft, Asif Ghazanfar, Dale Russell, David Schneider, Michael Szpir

 

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