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The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie, The Sibley Guide to Birds, and more . . .

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Tying a necktie is one of those things you know how to do until you start thinking about it—which means this elegant little book of instruction could have a paradoxical effect. But if you find that your fingers have suddenly forgotten the habit of a lifetime as you stand fumbling before the mirror, not to worry: In The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots (Broadway Books, $14.95), Thomas Fink and Yong Mao suggest seven dozen new ways to tie a knot around your neck. Perhaps surprisingly, their analysis is based not on knot theory but on the combinatorics of random walks. A knot is viewed as a sequence of "moves" in which the free end of the tie can wrap to the left, to the right or through the center; hence any necktie knot can be represented as a walk on a triangular lattice, where the three axes of the lattice correspond to the three kinds of moves. Enumerating all walks of no more than nine moves yields the catalogue of 85 possible knots. Shown on Frank Sinatra is knot 31, the Windsor.

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The Sibley Guide to Birds, by David Allen Sibley (Knopf $35), has some unique features that might sway birders to choose it over other North American field guides. Two species are presented on each page in a vertical format that includes a range map at the bottom. The illustrations are simple compared to those in some other guides, yet quite adequate for making an identification. Most birds are shown both at rest and in flight. Pointers draw the reader's attention to critical field markings. Notes about each bird—its voice, habitat and geographic variations—are clear and helpful. All told, the presentation is clean and thoughtful. But the book’s size will make most birders think twice: At about 1.2 kg, it has the heft of some 20 X 60 binoculars. Just as you might resist hauling those optics into the field, you may end up reaching for the field-guide equivalent of 8 X 32 binoculars when you walk out the door. Sibley's book will probably be left in the car, or perhaps near a window at home. Shown below, as an example of aberrant plumages, are two abnormally colored Willets: an albino and a much scarcer melanistic/partial albino.

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A Tribble’s Guide to Space (Princeton, $25), by spacecraft designer Alan C. Tribble, is unusually good reading. The author takes a playful approach to the science of space flight, constantly embellishing his explanations with references to the Star Trek television show and actual historical events in the U.S. space program. In addition to learning some basic astronautics, readers will discover the dangers of eating a sandwich in zero-G (you might inhale floating bread crumbs) and the typical salary of an astronaut (about $40,000 to $80,000). There is no better guide for a future rocket scientist or for anyone who just wants to understand what it means to be in space. Shown is Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

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In The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture (Oxford University Press, $25), John Lienhard brings a relentless optimism to his exposition of "the complex mirroring processes that define technology-driven evolution." The anecdotes included range widely in time, from the domestication of wheat around 10,000 years ago to episodes from Lienhard's career as an engineer and educator. Readers will find short treatments of ancient pumps, Gothic cathedrals, Victorian bridge engineers and many famous and not-so-famous airplanes, all loosely organized into chapters. The book has a celebratory tone: Lienhard writes that "We are always up for one more saga of a heroic technology carried out by a self-sacrificing hero." Readers desiring more can consult the National Public Radio scripts on which this book was based at Shown, "The author first confronts the conceptual riddle of the wheel."

In the late 19th century, the possibility that physical systems might be described in probabilistic ways, rather than deterministically, was anathema to most scientists. Ludwig Boltzmann was one of the first iconoclasts to declare that heat—as the energy of motion of atoms—should be described statistically. In Boltzmann's Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics (The Free Press, $24), science writer David Lindley describes engagingly and broadly the scientific and personal struggles Boltzmann suffered as he tried over three decades to gain acceptance for his explanations of thermodynamics and his concept of atoms (at that time a novelty). Ironically, in the last years of Boltzmann's troubled life, Max Planck and Albert Einstein used his ideas in statistical mechanics to lay the foundations of quantum physics.

Science is a discipline characterized as much by mystery and wonder as by experimentation and reproducible results. In The Barmaid's Brain and Other Strange Tales from Science (W. H. Freeman, $23.95), Jay Ingram purports to expose some of that mystery. The mythical Norse merman, for example, a beast of the sea regarded as a sign that a storm was imminent, may have been nothing more than a distant walrus seen through the "distorting lens of the atmosphere." The barmaid's exceptional ability to recall orders is offered as proof of the human brain's incredible adaptability. The eccentric behavior of young women accused of being witches in 17th-century Salem may have resulted from eating rye bread contaminated with ergot. Ingram's rational explanations for a handful of natural phenomena only add to their wonder, and the book is often amusing.

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