The Grail Bird, The Math Instinct, and Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn
THE GRAIL BIRD: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed
Woodpecker. Tim Gallagher. Houghton Mifflin, $25.
Anyone paying attention to the news recently has heard that the
ivory-billed woodpecker, believed for more than half a century to be
extinct, has been found living in the swamp forests of Arkansas.
Although some ornithologists would like to see better evidence, many
scientists have been convinced—primarily by sound
recordings—that at least two of the birds remain. In The
Grail Bird, author Tim Gallagher, who is the
editor-in-chief of Cornell's Living Bird magazine, tells
the story of how he tracked the giant woodpecker by following leads
supplied by people who either had seen the bird in the 1930s and
1940s or claimed to have seen it more recently. One of these tips
eventually led to a sighting during a canoe trip with a fellow
"grail" seeker, Bobby Harrison (shown at right decked out
in camouflage with his camcorder), and the rest is now history.
Along the way, Gallagher weaves an engaging tale that is in part a
detective story and in part a history of previous sightings. Readers
will be infuriated by the greed and ignorance that eradicated the
old-growth bottomland forests in which the woodpecker lived. And,
given the widely publicized skepticism voiced during the summer of
2005, readers will not be surprised to learn that previous
"rediscoverers" of the ivory-billed woodpecker were
greeted with the kind of cynicism that's usually reserved for
sightings of Bigfoot. Gallagher clearly "knows" what he
saw—whatever the skeptics may think—but he also agrees
that it is simply good science to acquire more evidence. To that
end, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Arkansas Audubon
Society are organizing another expedition to Arkansas this winter.
They were looking for volunteers as this magazine went to
THE MATH INSTINCT: Why You're a
Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and
Dogs). Keith Devlin. Thunder's Mouth Press, $25.
Babies just a few days old have number sense. Psychologists have
shown this by tracking the length of time infants stared at an image
on a screen, finding that they could reliably tell the difference
between one object and a collection of two objects, and between two
objects and a collection of three objects. A dog trying to fetch at
maximum speed a ball thrown over a lake diagonally to the water line
seems able to figure out how far to run along the shore before
plunging into the water, a problem that a human would need calculus
to solve. So why is mathematics the bane of so many people?
In The Math Instinct, Keith Devlin tries to make the
subject less intimidating by demonstrating that math is all around
us. The book is chock full of animal examples, some of them just as
surprising as a savvy ball-fetching dog.
Devlin seems uncertain what his readers will need to have explained.
He reminds us that bats are mammals but doesn't define Ohm's Law. In
the midst of eloquently explaining his area of expertise with
infectious enthusiasm, he suddenly launches into a treatise on the
relation between Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio, one that is
likely to make his target audience of math-phobes feel betrayed.
But Devlin does try to reassure readers by explaining that people
faced with real-world calculations, such as price comparisons in a
store, typically manage just fine, although they tend to use methods
different from those they were taught in school. In the context of
their daily lives, most people can solve the same problems that
stump them on written tests. Devlin laments that in schools the
abstract, representative number system, possibly humanity's greatest
conceptual invention, is often transformed into a rote learning
exercise, completely obscuring its majesty.
How can math be made more natural? Rather than memorizing universal
rules, the ultimate trick, Devlin says, is to practice, because
"familiarity breeds concreteness." It helps, he claims, to
keep in mind what an incredible feat you are performing when you add
1/4 + 2/5.—Fenella Saunders
TIGER BONE AND RHINO HORN: The Destruction of Wildlife for
Traditional Chinese Medicine. Richard Ellis. Island
On bear farms in China and Southeast Asia, workers insert catheters
into the gall bladders of caged bears and, once or twice a day,
"milk" the bears for their bile. Bear bile's purported
curative properties make it a valuable commodity—every year
about 7,000 kilograms of it are sold worldwide in various consumer
products. Walk into a traditional Chinese medicine shop in a large
North American city and you're likely to be able to buy
pharmaceuticals containing bear bile, which is used to treat
jaundice, hemorrhoids and a host of other ailments.
In Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn, prolific nature writer
Richard Ellis assesses the threat posed to bears, tigers, rhinos and
other animals by traditional Chinese medicine. He stresses the
connection between conservation efforts and larger political and
economic issues. For people living on just dollars a day, the chance
to make hundreds or even thousands of dollars by killing a single
animal is too good to pass up. There is some good news—the
white rhino (above right) is a conservation success story.
Ellis argues that whether the same will ever be said of other
animals coveted for their alleged healing properties depends
primarily on the choices made by the world's dominant
Connect With Us:
A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns,
and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.
News of book reviews published in
and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the
Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an
online profile, then sign up in the
My AmSci area.