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BOOK REVIEW

Nabokov's Blues, The Nothing That Is and more . . .

In Nabokov's Blues (Zoland, $27), Kurt Johnson and Stephen L. Coates tell a smart story about one of the century's towering intellects and his lesser-known passion: entomology. Vladimir Nabokov was a taxonomist at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and published nearly two dozen papers on butterflies, specializing in a well dispersed group commonly known as the blues—all before laying a pen to Lolita. The literati considered Nabokov's butterfly obsession to be an affectation; scientists sniffed at Nabokov, the amateur. The authors bring balance to the picture, cogently arguing that Nabokov made serious contributions and would have likely made more had his other job not been so time consuming.

What is there to know about nothing, or zero? In Robert Kaplan's The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero (Oxford, $22) and Charles Siefe's Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Viking, $24.95) there is much about the conceptual history of this fascinating number. Kaplan emphasizes the mathematical ideas at an introductory level, and Seife includes such topics as temperature's absolute zero.

Flora of the Northeast: A Manual of the Vascular Florda of New England and Adjacent New York by Dennis W. Magee and Harry E. Ahles (Massachusetts, $69.96) is comprehensive and fascinating—even for readers far outside this manual's targeted region. Many plants discussed can be found throughout North America, and the flora's notes on food value for humans and wildlife and on medicinal and poisonous properties plus an index that includes common plant names extend the readership beyond a professional audience.

Those who deny their "inner mammal" must read The Mammal in the Mirror (Freeman, $25) by David P. Barash and Ilona A. Barash. This father-daughter team offers a sweeping view of the human animal, from genes to sociobiology to ecology. It’s an engaging read for anyone still coming to terms with modern biology.

For those more concerned with the outer mammal, editors Don E. Wilson and Sue Ruff offer The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals (Smithsonian, $75), an attractive, authoritative compilation of facts, photographs, range maps and references that will find a wide and appreciative audience. In more than 700 pages covering more than 400 species, Wilson and Ruff arrange the work by evolutionary relationship, from possum to rabbit. A laudable effort.

Secret Worlds (Firefly, $35) is a delightful, stop-action look at nature through the fast-winking lens of Stephen Dalton, whose descriptions of his critter-subjects are nearly as engaging as his pictures: "The horned frog is almost the size of a dinner plate and has a pugnacious disposition. This South American native feeds on small mammals, birds, snakes and other frog species and is even reputed to be cannibalistic."

Already during antiquity people attempted to chart the observed general pattern of the moon's imagery, but it was only after Galileo’s telescopic discoveries that a systematic effort to map the surface of the moon and to label the observed phenomena began in earnest. Ewen A. Whitaker's Mapping and Naming the Moon: A History of Lunar Cartography and Nomenclature (Cambridge, $59.95) offers an exhaustive survey, accompanied with numerous illustrations, of such undertakings, and his labor of love is bound to make the volume the definitive treatment of the subject.

If you lie awake worrying about the overnight transition from December 31, 1 B.C. to January 1, A.D.. 1 (there is no year zero), then you will enjoy Duncan Steel's Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar (Wiley, $28). Among other timely tidbits, the reader will learn that a Northumbrian monk, the Venerable Bede, helped Europe avoid a millenarian apocalypse about 1,300 years ago by simply renumbering the years in the calendar. In so doing, the good Bede created our A.D. system of numbering the years—and is therefore the true originator of our Y2K problem.

The Scientific American Science Desk Reference (Wiley, $39.95) means well and is packed with great information, but good luck finding what you're looking for. Page numbers are hidden, and the table of contents is laconic and not much help. Checking a simple fact can be more frustrating than edifying. Perhaps the editors can provide a good compass in a subsequent edition.

Scarred by a "violent and complex past," the geological, biological and cultural patchwork called Central America barely hangs together today. Editor Anthony G. Coates and the assembled authors of Central America: A Natural and Cultural History (Yale, $17.95) are passionately worried about every piece of the crazy quilt, from failing coral reef systems (brain coral, Diploria, is shown below) to the booming human populations that push onto failing lands, triggering political instability and environmental disaster. Now in paper, their book is a call to research, education and action—and a splendid illustrated guidebook to the troubled corridor that links the Americas.

New-in-paper picks: Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, Dennis Overbye (Back Bay/Little Brown, $16.95); The Diamond Makers, Robert M. Hazen (Cambridge, $15.95); Origins of Life, 2nd ed., Freeman Dyson (Cambridge, $12.95); The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter, $17.95; Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century, Philip Ball (Princeton, $17.95).

Nanoviewers: William J. Cannon, Lil Chappell, Mordechai Feingold, Rosalind Reid, Michael Szpir, William Thompson

 

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