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BOOK REVIEW

The Hundred Greatest Stars, Encyclopedia of Rain Forests, and more...

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Regular viewers of public television may still recall Carl Sagan waxing poetic about the universe and its “billions and billions of stars.” James B. Kaler surveys only a tiny fraction of them in The Hundred Greatest Stars (Copernicus Books, $32.50), but what a diverse and fascinating fraction it is! Kaler first warms readers to his celestial tour with a thorough yet brief overview of the relevant concepts, including helpful asides on the nomenclature of stars and the history of their study. He then goes on to survey his favorite hundred or so, restricting his commentary on each star to one page of text. The opposing page lists key attributes of the star and provides an eye-catching picture. The time-lapse photo of the sky shown below, for example, is used to illustrate the description of Sigma Octantis—which is the closest thing to a pole star in the southern hemisphere. But without Kaler’s helpful book, who would have guessed that, thanks to Earth’s wobble, a mere century ago Sigma Octantis fell closer to the axis of rotation than Polaris, the familiar pole star for us northerners, does now?—D.A.S.

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The tropical rain forest has become such a nexus of environmental controversy in recent years that many people know the rain forest mainly as the subject of news coverage. Diane Jukofsky, the Costa-Rica–based director of the Rainforest Alliance’s Conservation Media Alliance, has set out to write a work that outlines the context of the controversies. Encyclopedia of Rainforests (Oryx Press, $79.50) is a clear-eyed attempt by an environmental journalist to sort out her world for the benefit of the rest of us. The book lacks the depth and detail of scholarly encyclopedias focusing on specific topics such as rain forest flora, but this is intentional. Jukofsky widens her lens, surveying the biology, ecology and status of tropical rainforests and also taking in the people of the rain forest and the activists and scientists who have adopted it, as well as the many projects, agencies and organizations with a hand in its future. Below, an Amazonian rubber tapper scores a tree’s bark to extract latex.—R.R.

Break out your binoculars! Birding celebrity David Allen Sibley has produced yet another book, Sibley’s Birding Basics (Knopf, $15.95), that will make you want to look for the feathered creatures that share our world. This slim volume addresses general principles of how to identify a bird, rather than focusing on the characteristic field marks of different species. Think of it as wisdom literature for birders.

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There is a method to birding, and Sibley offers practical tips on how to become a master. He starts with how one should approach the subject: where to look, how to move, how to listen, what to draw and what to look for in the bird’s behavior. Along the way he offers simple insights that will help beginners, and even some intermediate birders. A typical example: If the situation permits, look first at a bird’s bill and face. Related species typically have similar bills (for example, flycatchers tend to have broad, flat bills), whereas the face and bill together are uniquely marked in many species (but not in flycatchers!). Birders of all levels will enjoy several chapters on feathers, wings and molting near the end of the book, including a section on how the different types of feathers combine to create an overall color pattern on a bird, as the drawing of a short-billed dowitcher illustrates.

Sibley mentions studies suggesting that birds can discern up to 10 times more detail in sounds than we do. His book is meant to increase human discernment: If you follow his advice, you will take in more information during a quick look at a bird than you might have thought possible.—M.S.

"I'm changing the climate, Ask me how," the Lincoln Navigator's bumper sticker proclaimed. This was no confession; the sticker was the work of an anti-SUV guerrilla. That act of eco-vandalism typifies an immense cultural divide: those who drive to tower above versus those who cower below.

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In High and Mighty: SUVs—The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got that Way (PublicAffairs, $28), Keith Bradsher exhaustively details the case against motorbloat. Much of his fodder is familiar, some not: Sport utility vehicles need not meet the same safety, fuel-mileage or emissions standards as cars. They offer no safety benefit for their occupants, and they pose a major threat to occupants of cars that run afoul of their lofty bumpers (see below). As a result, because of roughly equal insurance rates, car owners subsidize large liability claims against SUVs. And SUVs owe their existence at least in part to a cynical effort by the auto industry to duck regulation and maximize profit.

Unfortunately, High and Mighty preaches to the choir: Few are ambivalent about SUVs, and no self-respecting SUV driver will stomach 460 pages of pet-myth debunking. Read it to add ammo to your traffic rants. Better yet, send copies to your representatives, who are complicit in this assault on sanity. But mostly, know that your Taurus, Camry or S70 will carry you at least as safely as any SUV, and will be kinder to your wallet and the planet as you go.—D.R.S.

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Technology can alter our world and our perceptions of it. Images from Science: An Exhibition of Scientific Photography (RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, $19.99) is the catalogue for a juried exhibit organized by the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology. Made with a variety of lenses, from traditional cameras to electron microscopes and astronomical telescopes, these images blur the distinction between art and science.

Many of the 58 selections are both aesthetically and intellectually pleasing. Above, the bee in David C. Ring’s Bar-coded Honeybee on Honeycomb (1988) has been tagged by researchers so that it can be scanned with a laser bar-code reader to track how often it departs from and returns to its hive. And Amanda Rebbechi’s Epilepsy Procedure(2000) offers a close-up look at intracranial electrodes recording brain functions and localizing the source of seizures.

For additional glimpses of worlds you might otherwise miss, visit the exhibit online at http://images.rit.edu.—F.D.

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Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, former Sanskrit scholar, sometime keeper of the Freud archives, and bestselling author of Why Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love, lives in New Zealand with five cats. In his latest book, The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey into the Feline Heart (Ballantine, $24.95), Masson rhapsodizes on the nine key emotions in a cat’s life. He is blissfully indifferent, however, to the devastation that narcissistic, loving, contented, attached, jealous, fearful, angry, curious or maybe just playful cats have wrought on New Zealand’s unique bird life. He complacently records how the bells he fastened to his cats’ collars soon fell off, and he doesn’t ponder too long where the cat that rarely comes home is getting fed. How anybody who cares about animals can be so unperturbed by the impact of one species on others is baffling.

To Masson, as a good Freudian, the behavior of cats is just a clue to their elaborate hidden emotional lives. Committed cat lovers will eat this up, their intuitions so massaged by Masson that they’ll end up on their backs purring, paws in the air. But anyone with an open mind and curiosity about our furry feline friends will find little here to gnaw on.

Two of Masson’s cats are shown below, in a pose of attachment.—C.D.L.W.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore. But when the moon appears awfully big in the sky, that’s an illusion.

It’s still uncertain why the moon (or, for that matter, the sun or another star) looks larger on the horizon than it does from on high, but The Mystery of the Moon Illusion (Oxford University Press, $45) skillfully tracks explanations of the phenomenon from the Greeks to the modern era. Psychologists Helen Ross and Cornelis Plug round up numerous physical, physiological and perceptual theories and eliminate some of the usual suspects. For example, the popular belief that atmospheric refraction is the culprit suffers from a lack of hard evidence. And with advances in neuroscience on the horizon, it’s likely that we’ll soon know for sure that the answer is all in our heads.—F.D.

In They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus: An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship (Bantam, $24.95), Elizabeth Weil recounts the crazy antics of a group of would-be rocket pioneers and spaceflight enthusiasts—spacers—who devote years of their lives (and millions of dollars of other people’s money) to a vision of outsmarting the staid aerospace establishment. The book provides an intimate look at the trials of Rotary Rocket Corporation and a glimpse of a topsy-turvy world in which seasoned rocket engineers and ex-astronauts regularly rub shoulders with music moguls, telecom billionaires and aging Trekkies. The sardonic Weil must have been tempted to title this The Wrong Stuff—but that would have given away the ending.—D.A.S.

Nanoviewers: Frank Diller, Rosalind Reid, David A. Schneider, David R. Schoonmaker, Michael Szpir, Clive D. L. Wynne

 

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