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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 2001 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

The 23rd Cycle, The Cichlid Fishes, and more . . .

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In The 23rd Cycle: Learning to Live with a Stormy Star (Columbia University, $27.95), Sten Odenwald raises the specter of yet another menacing threat from "outer space"—this time from our very own, seemingly placid, Sun. Although a major solar storm may not be as dramatic as a world-destroying asteroid impact, it's much more likely to happen, and its consequences can be both deadly and expensive. Solar flares and coronal mass ejections can play havoc with the Earth's magnetosphere, disabling satellites, endangering astronauts and inflicting serious damage to some of the globe's power grids. Odenwald recounts some notable historical examples, including the power outage in the province of Quebec during the winter of 1989, and gives us reason to worry about how ill-prepared we are for geomagnetic disturbances in the future. It's scary enough to warrant a Hollywood disaster movie, which someone, somewhere, must be writing this very minute. Shown below is the face of the Sun at sunspot minimum (left half) and sunspot maximum (right half).

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In The Cichlid Fishes: Nature’s Grand Experiment in Evolution (Perseus, $28), George W. Barlow provides the definitive popular-level overview of this wildly diverse (approaching 2,000 species) family of freshwater fishes. The cichlids are favorites of aquarium hobbyists (think angelfish, among many others), but evolutionary biologists love the intelligent cichlids for their behavioral antics—including murder, subtle mating games (shown are a courting pair of Sri Lankan Etroplus suratensis) and "weird" sex (including transgender behavior), all of which are mixed in with good family values when raising the small fry. If one were to design a fish with human qualities, it would undoubtedly be a cichlid.

Dennis Overbye's Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance (Viking, $27.95) chronicles the great man’s oft-lonely heart as his brain wends through the thorny cosmos. Overbye, a New York Times science writer, is masterful at weaving details of Einstein’s life in early-20th-century Switzerland and environs with his subject’s consideration, and ultimate remaking, of the late-19th-century universe. Einstein aficionados may find precious little new here, but it’s hard to imagine a more skillful rendering of the flesh-and-blood package—Einstein as son, difficult student, musician, coffee-club maven, longing-filled lover, husband, science-establishment reject, working stiff and evolving giant of modern physics.

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As engaging as it is to read, what makes Richard Ellis's Encyclopedia of the Sea (Knopf, $35) a truly remarkable work is that its author has himself illustrated this visually rich book. Indeed, a casual reader would be hard-pressed to find a page that does not contain at least one of the author’s splendid renderings. Shown here, for example, is Ellis’s view of the giant squid (Architeuthis spp.), one of a small set of illustrations done in color. The corresponding entry is appropriately sized for such a compendium—which shows great restraint, given that the author has also written an entire book about this enigmatic sea creature. But this encyclopedia is much more than a vehicle for Ellis to display his artistic talents. His expertise in marine subjects is evident, and he shows excellent judgment in choosing interesting and sometimes unexpected items to include as he works his way alphabetically from abalone to zooxanthellae. Those with a passion for the sea will enjoy perusing this work; those without could easily develop one.

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A lively mix of social, political, military and, yes, even corporate history of flying machines and their makers can be found in T. A. Heppenheimer's A Brief History of Flight: From Balloons to Mach 3 and Beyond (John Wiley and Sons, $30). Here are vignettes and anecdotes to please the most jaded reader, with a minimum of off-putting quantification and technical detail. The ambitions and rivalries of men (and an occasional woman) and nations for 200 or so years are described, and the book has a good bibliography and index, and near-perfect factual accuracy. But . . . the contents of this thoroughly idiosyncratic history constitute a bizarre set of decisions about what matters, and how much, for the history of aviation. Lighter-than-air vehicles finally get a fair shake, from the earliest French balloons using both hot air and hydrogen to modern nonrigid blimps. Neither helicopters nor autogyros, though, merit a word, and, while Igor Sikorsky never appears, Jack Northrop’s flying wing gets nearly a chapter. The Red Baron and Chuck Yeager each rate nearly twice the space given the Wright Brothers. One hears about the great round-the-world nonstop flight of Burt Rutan’s Voyager (pictured is an earlier Rutan-designed plane, Defiant) but nothing whatsoever about the highly innovative human-powered craft of Paul MacCready and his successors.

Following up on his 1994 solo effort, Physical Oceanographic Processes of the Great Barrier Reef, Eric Wolanski has now assembled his work and that of 39 other experts on coral reefs in Oceanographic Processes of Coral Reefs: Physical and Biological Links in the Great Barrier Reef (CRC, $99.95). The result constitutes nothing less than the authoritative reference to the natural—and not so natural—processes that will determine the fate of the world's largest barrier reef. Although technically rigorous, the individual submissions remain accessible to an interdisciplinary audience, and the editor frequently provides a unifying theme with computer simulations of various systems. Indeed, the accompanying CD-ROM is an unusually valuable resource, providing expandable versions of all figures and dozens of animations to illustrate time-lapse processes. We can only hope that this book sees wide circulation among scientists and planners before time runs out for a priceless resource.

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Do you feel you're not in Kansas anymore? If so, you'll be right at home with Dorothy, whose adventures in the fantasyland of particle physics are described by Robert Gilmore in The Wizard of Quarks (Copernicus Books, $24). Gilmore, whose Alice in Quantumland and Scrooge’s Cryptic Carol are from the same publisher, entertains and informs readers with the fantastic ideas of quantum mechanics and high-energy physics. If you like science and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, you will enjoy exploring the real world of the CERN laboratories as much as the make-believe world of Hogwarts School. Shown is the Witch of Mass (gravity)—sister to the Witch of Charge (the electromagnetic interaction), the Witch of Color (the strong interaction) and the Weak Witch (the weak interaction).

Looking for a refreshing break from thinking about work? David Perkins’s light and pleasing Archimedes’ Bathtub: The Art and Logic of Breakthrough Thinking (W. W. Norton, $24.95) may be just the mental palate-cleanser you’ve been craving. Perkins, who codirects "Project Zero" at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, makes use of his background in artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology to examine the logic and underlying processes that have led to great discoveries in many different fields. You’ll find a wealth of entertaining puzzles and brainteasers to practice on as you explore famous examples of breakthrough thinking, from Filippo Brunelleschi's discovery of perspective to evolution itself. For anyone who enjoys thinking about thinking, this book will be a delight.

Nanoviewers: William J. Cannon, Linda Schmalbeck, David Schneider, David Schoonmaker, Michael Szpir, William Thompson, Steven Vogel

 

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