Scientists' Nightstand, Vol. 2 No. 4

The Scientists’ Nightstand newsletter highlights recent reviews published in American Scientist, as well as other noteworthy news from the world of science books. As always, we welcome your letters and comments. You’ll find us at Thanks for reading!

Reviews from American Scientist, September–October 2014

The Science of CheeseSciNightstand Cheese
by Michael H. Tunick
Everything you ever wanted to know about the science of cheese, served between hardback covers and garnished with informative images and meticulously prepared charts. Tunick examines the physics, chemistry, and biology of cheese making, then goes on to discuss such specifics as the science, complexities, and controversy around terroir. He even teaches readers how to make their own cheese at home. Review by Emily Buehler

SciNightstand What IfWhat If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
by Randall Munroe
This book collects and builds on xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe’s ongoing “What If?” project, in which he investigates, answers, and illustrates in comic fashion his readers’ captivatingly screwball “what if” questions about science. One example: “As plastic is made from oil and oil is made from dead dinosaurs, how much actual real dinosaur is there in a plastic dinosaur?” Review by Jorge Cham

Extraordinary Birds: Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library
by Paul Sweet
Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual: Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031SciNightstand Birds
by Kate Samworth
Two books of ornithological artwork that are double the pleasure when read together. Extraordinary Birds assembles a trove of ornithological art from the American Museum of Natural History’s rare books library. Detailed descriptions of avian biology and anatomy open the book; then each featured illustration is accompanied by an essay discussing how naturalists and artists went about creating the work. The witty and wildly illustrated Aviary Wonders Inc. is a satirical critique disguised as a children’s book. Set in the future and presented in the form of a buyer’s catalog, it offers “bird substitutes” in an imagined age of plummeting avian populations, highlighting facts about real-life species endangerment and extinctions along the way. Review by Dianne Timblin.

Off the Table
Notable reviews and science books coverage from other publications.

The New York Times reviews Vikram Chandra's Geek Sublime, a meditation on the relationship between literature and science that mixes poetry and programming, history and memoir, technology and art.

In an interview with National Geographic, Australian anthropologist Thom Van Dooren, author of the recently released Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, discusses "mourning fatigue" and the importance of "telling lively stories about extinction." (To read about some similarly lively stories, check out American Scientist’s recent reviews of The Great Extinctions, by Norman MacLeod, and Lost Animals, by Errol Fuller.)

The New York Review of Books examines three works on climate change: Gabrielle Walker's book Antarctica and two scientific reports. One—the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Climate Change Impacts in the United States—weighs in at 829 pages, and reviewer Bill McKibben calls it “[possibly] the most depressing announcement yet of the global warming era.” “Physics," he goes on to say, “is not going to let us off easily. All our efforts, from now on, must be devoted to keeping things from getting worse than they otherwise will be.”

Penguin Random House editor Kristin Fritz, writing in Words & Film, recommends several nonfiction books on the history of medicine that she finds “informative and wildly entertaining.”

The New York Times reviews EarthArt: Colors of the Earth, by Bernhard Edmaier, a photographer who once specialized in civil engineering and geology. The photos in this large-format book revel in the colors, contours, and textures of deserts and volcanoes, oceans and glaciers. Along with the photos, EarthArt includes a section on the history of color theory and explains how the Earth produces substances tinted by the various hues around which Edmaier organizes the book.

In her review of Becoming Freud for the New York Times, Vivian Gornick explains that Adam Phillips’s new book isn't so much a traditional biography as the “step-by-step story . . . of how psychoanalysis came to be.” Of the prolific author, Gornick concludes, “Adam Phillips is, I believe, one of the most engaging writers in the world on analysis and the analytic movement.”

The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman, has earned a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Ackerman’s captivating prose first gained wide attention in the early 1990s with the publication of A Natural History of the Senses; her latest book focuses on the Anthropocene era, examining how humans have interacted with the environment through engineering, biology, medicine, and technology of all kinds.

Slate offers an excerpt from The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, by Arthur Allen. (For more on the subject of treating typhus in Nazi Germany, see American Scientist's recent review of Bergen-Belsen 1945: A Medical Student’s Journal.)

Vicki Constantine Croke, writing for the New York Times, engagingly reviews two books that focus on bird migration: The Thing with Feathers, by Noah Strycker, and The Homing Instinct, by Bernd Heinrich. The former investigates the phenomenon of navigation within the wider context of avian behavior; the latter examines migration more generally, expanding the topic beyond the movement of birds.

If you're counting the days until the November 11 release of Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts, you can whet your appetite with this post from the New York Times’s ArtsBeat blog, which reveals what archaeologists have learned about the controversial ruler’s dietary habits. (The post might serve as dessert for readers lucky enough to reside in the UK, where the book is already available.)

For Book Riot, author Sarah McCarry shares her favorite works on cosmology, offering up an interesting mix of biography, memoir, and history of science texts.

Tim Flannery examines The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change in considerable depth for the New York Review of Books. After conveying a handful of engrossing accounts of explorers’ encounters with the reef, he discusses evidence of its current state of decline, concluding, “Today the fate of one of the most magnificent ecosystems of our planet lies in the hands of some of the most technologically advanced and affluent people who have ever existed. We shall soon know whether they value their natural heritage sufficiently to avert a great coral apocalypse.”

If you enjoyed American Scientist’s recent review of The Secret Language of Color, particularly the parts about the chemistry of paint pigments, you may be interested in Charles Hope’s discussion of an exhibition currently on display at London’s National Gallery, Making Color, that draws inspiration from the book A Closer Look: Colour, by David Bomford and Ashok Roy. The exhibition, Hope explains, “illustrates the characteristics and use by painters of the principal types of pigment, also showing the changes made possible by the introduction of new types of paint after 1800.”

Poet and memoirist Matthew Gavin Frank has written a giant essay (300 pages) on the giant squid, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. Ryan Teitman discusses it in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Publishing News
Dispatches from the world of science book publishing and notes on the future of reading.

Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath has battled its way to the top the New York Times list of science best sellers. You'll find the full list of August combatants here.

The New York Times reports that, because closing the deal became too complex, the Hatchette Book Group's acquisition of Perseus and its 10 publishing imprints has fallen through. The acquisition would have strengthened Hachette's nonfiction list in key categories, such as travel and academic books; it also would have given the publisher a competitive boost against heavy hitters such as Macmillan and Penguin Random House. In addition, “it also might have given Hachette more power in its continuing talks with Amazon over electronic book prices.”

Speaking of Hatchette and Amazon… For those who may have lost track of the companies’ ongoing contract negotiations and the controversy surrounding them, the folks at Electronic Literature have thoughtfully compiled a reading list to bring you up to date.

Following up on Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of the television series Cosmos, W. W. Norton is reissuing four of his books as paperbacks: The Pluto Files, Origins, Death by Black Hole, and Space Chronicles. They'll be available September 2. If you can’t wait, you might enjoy reading about deGrasse Tyson’s own favorite authors in the meantime.

Justin Wadland, in reviewing three works for the Los Angeles Review of Books, considers the past, present, and future of the library.

Another forward-looking piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books proposes what may be in store for readers. Micah McCrary, in the course of reviewing Eric LeMay’s In Praise of Nothing: Essays, Memoir, and Experiments, notes, “This is a book, at least in its multimedia version, that gives us a clue about the future of reading. . . . I’m not one to predict the future of our consumption, but I know that reading, on one hand, and watching, on the other, together make for a fruitful experience.”


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