Macfarlane (English/Cambridge Univ.; The Wild Places, 2008, etc.) returns with another masterful, poetic travel narrative.
The author’s latest, focusing broadly on the concept of walking, forms what he calls “a loose trilogy,” with his two earlier books, Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, “about landscape and the human heart.” As in his previous books, it seems nearly impossible that a writer could combine so many disparate elements into one sensible narrative. It’s ostensibly a first-person travelogue (of England, Spain, Palestine, Tibet and other locales), combined with biographical sketches (such as that of poet Edward Thomas, who died on a battlefield in France in 1917) and historical anecdotes about a wide variety of subjects (e.g., a set of 5,000-year-old footprints made by a family along the coastline just north of Liverpool). In the hands of a lesser writer, these divergent ideas would almost certainly result in unreadable chaos, but Macfarlane effortlessly weaves them together under the overarching theme of “walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” While this notion may seem abstract, the author’s resonant prose brings it to life—whether he is writing about the mountains of Tibet, where a half-frozen stream is “halted mid-leap in elaborate forms of yearning,” or the mountains of Scotland to which he returned for his grandfather’s funeral, where he found “moonlight shimmering off the pine needles and pooling in the tears of resin wept by the pines.”
A breathtaking study of “walking as enabling sight and thought rather than encouraging retreat and escape.”
Unsentimental memoir of the author’s three-month solo hike from California to Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Following the death of her mother, Strayed’s (Torch, 2006) life quickly disintegrated. Family ties melted away; she divorced her husband and slipped into drug use. For the next four years, life was a series of disappointments. “I was crying over all of it,” she writes, “over the sick mire I’d made of my life since my mother died; over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly.” While waiting in line at an outdoors store, Strayed read the back cover of a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially, the idea of hiking the trail became a vague apparition, then a goal. Woefully underprepared for the wilderness, out of shape and carrying a ridiculously overweight pack, the author set out from the small California town of Mojave, toward a bridge (“the Bridge of the Gods”) crossing the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. Strayed’s writing admirably conveys the rigors and rewards of long-distance hiking. Along the way, she suffered aches, pains, loneliness, blistered, bloody feet and persistent hunger. Yet the author also discovered a newfound sense of awe; for her, hiking the PCT was “powerful and fundamental” and “truly hard and glorious.” Strayed was stunned by how the trail both shattered and sheltered her. Most of the hikers she met along the way were helpful, and she also encountered instances of trail magic, “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”
A candid, inspiring narrative of the author’s brutal physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self.
National Book Award–winning journalist Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children.
More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as “a genocidal attack on a vibrant community” because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually, Far from the Tree began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, “terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility” faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity.
An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity.
Nature writer and intrepid traveler Quammen (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, 2006, etc.) sums up in one absorbing volume what we know about some of the world’s scariest scourges: Ebola, AIDS, pandemic influenza—and what we can do to thwart the “NBO,” the Next Big One.
The author discusses zoonoses, infectious diseases that originate in animals and spread to humans. The technical term is “spillover.” It’s likely that all infections began as spillovers. Some, like Ebola and lesser-known viral diseases (Nipah, Hendra, Marburg), are highly transmissible and virulent, but so far have been limited to sporadic outbreaks. They persist because they are endemic in a reservoir population through a process of mutual adaptation. Finding that reservoir holds the key to control and prevention and gives Quammen’s accounts the thrill of the chase and the derring-do of field research in rain forests and jungles and even teeming Asian cities where monkeys run wild. The author chronicles his travels around the world, including a stop in a bat cave in Uganda with scientists who found evidence that bats were the source of Marburg and other zoonoses, but not AIDS. Quammen’s AIDS narrative traces the origin of HIV to chimpanzee-human transmission around 1908, probably through blood-borne transmission involved in the killing of the animal for food. Over the decades, with changing sexual mores, an ever-increasing world population and global travel, the stage was set for a takeoff. Quammen concludes with a timely discussion of bird flu, which has yet to achieve human-to-human transmission but, thanks to the rapid mutation rate and gene exchanges typical of RNA viruses, could be the NBO. You can’t predict, say the experts; what you can do is be alert, establish worldwide field stations to monitor and test and take precautions.
A wonderful, eye-opening account of humans versus disease that deserves to share the shelf with such classics as Microbe Hunters and Rats, Lice and History.
How can the world smite thee? Let us count the ways...
Having limned the odds and wherefores of surviving various challenges in Deep Survival (2003) and Everyday Survival (2008), Gonzales (Lucy, 2010, etc.) looks deeply into the mental processes that enable us to cope with the trauma that often sets in during and after a challenge to our survival. Take, for instance, the prospect of falling overboard and floating in the deep ocean for five days before rescue, as happened to one woman Gonzales profiled in the first book. Though she was rescued, that was not the end of the story in real life; instead, for years, she has had to relive “the pain of thirst, the terror, the physical brutality of the sea,” while her brain has followed its well-known assumption that what happened in the past will happen in the future, no matter how rare the chances of being shipwrecked. Here Gonzales narrates plenty of grim and gruesome tales, not all of them elective; his survivors are those who have suffered war and terrorism as well as falls off mountains and into choppy surf. The best parts are not those harrowing stories, though, but instead the author’s contemplative explanations of the science behind, for instance, how the amygdala works, a blend of inheritance and hard-won education. Pity us poor primates and our amygdalae, for, as he writes, “[w]hen bad things happen, this system can be the source of much sorrow.” One manifestation is the “rage circuit,” which so often afflicts soldiers returning from combat. Those who adapt well to the post-traumatic stress share points in common. One characteristic of success, writes Gonzales, is the ability to step outside oneself to help others, which is “one of the most therapeutic steps you can take.”
Survivors of traumatic events often do not recover without help from others, and Gonzales’ excellent book is an education for those wishing to be of use in a stressful, often frightening world.
Never shy about tackling big questions, veteran evolutionary biologist Wilson (The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, 2006, etc.) delivers his thoughtful if contentious explanation of why humans rule the Earth.
After a respectful nod to the old favorites (big brains, tools, language, fire), the author maintains that these merely provide the background to our overpowering “eusociality”; we are the world’s most intensely social creatures, living in complex societies of mutually dependent individuals. Wilson adds that another eusocial organism, the ant, dominated terrestrial life for 50 million years before humans appeared; it remains a close second. The author provides a provocative comparison of how this powerful but rare evolutionary strategy vaulted two wildly different species to the top of the heap. Both originated with individuals cooperating and behaving altruistically, often sacrificing themselves, to protect a defensible nest. For humans, this crucial step began when extended families of our Homo erectus ancestors gathered around campfires over 1 million years ago. Gradually, members of multiple generations divided labor and specialized. Natural selection worked to expand this eusociality, and Wilson emphasizes that it was the group that evolved. Whether they were genetically related or not mattered little. Group selection—as opposed to kin selection, i.e., the “selfish gene” à la Richard Dawkins—is the author’s big idea. Few lay readers will disagree, but Wilson’s fellow biologists are not so sure; kin versus group selection remains a subject of fierce debate.
Wilson succeeds in explaining his complex ideas, so attentive readers will receive a deeply satisfying exposure to a major scientific controversy.
Hazen (Earth Science/George Mason Univ.; Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins, 2005, etc.) offers startling evidence that “Earth's living and nonliving spheres” have co-evolved over the past 4 billion years.
To support his persuasive though controversial views, the author updates evidence collected by mineralogists over the last two centuries. Describing the “discoveries of organisms in places long considered inhospitable [to life] – in superheated volcanic vents, acidic pools, Arctic ice and stratospheric dust,” he argues for the dating of the origin of life more than a billion years earlier than estimates based on Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey's groundbreaking experiments. These appeared to support the view that life originated 2.5 billion years ago in an oceanic environment with the creation of organic molecules. Hazen explains how Urey and his associates were able to re-create “primordial soup” in a simulation, which produced “a suite of biomolecules stunningly similar to what life actually uses.” That theory has been challenged in the last two decades, based on the discovery that life “fueled by chemical [rather than solar] energy” exists in extreme environments in astonishing abundance. Hazen and colleagues at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory (with support from NASA) have succeeded in simulating conditions that would have existed on Earth as early as 4.5 billion years ago, while producing biomolecules that are today the building blocks of life. The author situates this latest experimental evidence in a series of discoveries about the earth's geological evolution, sparked by analysis of moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts.
A report of a fascinating new theory on the Earth's origins written in a sparkling style with many personal touches.
That we live in a digital universe is indisputable; how we got there is a mesmerizing tale brilliantly told by science historian Dyson (Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965, 2002, etc.).
The author establishes late 1945 as the birth date of the first stored-program machine, built at the Institute for Advanced Study, established in Princeton in 1932 as a haven for theoreticians. It happened under the watch of the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, fresh from commutes to Los Alamos where the atom bomb had been built and the hydrogen bomb was only a gleam in Edward Teller’s eye. Dyson makes clear that the motivation for some of the world’s greatest technological advances has always been to perfect instruments of war. Indeed, von Neumann’s colleagues included some who had been at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where a dedicated-purpose computer, ENIAC, had been built to calculate firing tables for anti-aircraft artillery. The IAS computer, MANIAC, was used to determine the parameters governing the fission of an atom device inside an H-bomb that would then ignite the fusion reaction. But for von Neumann and others, the MANIAC was also the embodiment of Alan Turing’s universal machine, an abstract invention in the ’30s by the mathematician who would go on to crack the Nazi’s infamous Enigma code in World War II. In addition to these stories, Dyson discusses climate and genetic-modeling projects programmed on the MANIAC. The use of wonderful quotes and pithy sketches of the brilliant cast of characters further enriches the text. Who knew that eccentric mathematician/logician Kurt Gödel had married a Viennese cabaret dancer?
Meticulously researched and packed with not just technological details, but sociopolitical and cultural details as well—the definitive history of the computer.
A veteran anthropologist writes a superb overview of how our species developed (a long process) and how we grew smart enough to dominate the planet (a short process in which evolution played little part).
Tattersall (Paleontology: A Brief History of Life, 2010, etc.), curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, begins with early hominids, who took the first step away from apedom about 5 million years ago by rising to walk on two legs. In absorbing detail, he describes two centuries of often-grueling field research that turned up more species that learned to make tools and whose brains slowly grew. For 3 million years, our small-brained ancestors, the Australopithecus genus, spread throughout Africa before leaving the scene. From about 2 million years ago, bigger-brained members of genus Homo ranged across Eurasia without making a great impression. Homo sapiens, remarkably young at 200,000 years, did not seem a great improvement until about 60,000 years ago, when their brains began processing information symbolically, leading to language, art, technology and sophisticated social organization, all of which accompanied our species across the world, wiping out competing hominids. While researchers argue over why this happened, Tattersall emphasizes that evolutionary milestones, even dramatic ones like flying, do not happen when new features appear but take advantage of those already present. Feathers existed long before birds flew, and Homo sapiens’ brains were always capable of great things.
Keeping a critical eye on the evidence and a skeptical one on theories, Tattersall confirms his status among world anthropologists by delivering a superior popular explanation of human origins.
Science writer Kean (The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, 2010) returns with another wide-ranging, entertaining look at science history, this time focusing on the many mysteries of DNA.
The author examines numerous discoveries in more than a century of DNA and genetics research, including such familiar touchstones as Gregor Mendel’s pea-plant experiments and the double-helix model of Watson and Crick. Kean also explores less-well-known territory, deftly using his stories as jumping-off points to unpack specific scientific concepts. He discusses how DNA discoveries led not only to medical breakthroughs, but also to new ways of looking at the past; they “remade the very study of human beings.” Kean delves into theories regarding possible genetic diseases of Charles Darwin, French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and ancient Egyptian king Tut, among others, and how their ailments may have subtly affected developments in scientific, artistic and even royal history. Some stories edge into more bizarre areas, such as one Soviet scientist’s dream to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid, but Kean also tells the moving story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, “perhaps the most unlucky man of the twentieth century,” who was near both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 when the nuclear bombs were dropped—and who, despite almost certainly suffering DNA damage from radiation, lived into his 90s. At his best, Kean brings relatively obscure historical figures to life—particularly Niccolò Paganini, the titular violinist who wowed early-19th-century audiences with his virtuosity, aided by finger flexibility that may have been due to the genetic disease Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Kean’s talent also shines in the sections on scientific rivalries, such as that between biologist Craig Venter’s private company Celera and the government-funded Human Genome Project, both of which are racing to sequence all human DNA.
In an impressive narrative, the author renders esoteric DNA concepts accessible to lay readers.
An extraordinary, intimate view of life in an old-growth forest.
“Can the whole forest be seen through a small contemplative window of leaves, rocks, and water?” This is the question Haskell (Biology/Univ. of the South) set out to answer by examining one square meter of old-growth Tennessee woods. Highly informative and entertaining, these short essays are dense with sensory details and deserve to be read slowly and carefully. The sights, smells and sounds of the forest permeate the pages, bringing readers face to face with a panoply of simple natural wonders: leaves, wildflowers, mosses, ferns, snails, salamanders, deer and more. Throughout an entire calendar year, Haskell scrutinizes this “mandala” of space, connecting the microcosm of birds, plants and animals in this patch of woods to the macrocosm of the outer world. This in-depth look into the natural biosphere emphasizes the idea that nothing—not even the small microbes that exist in the leaf litter—lives unrelated or unconnected to any other thing. What happens in this old forest is affected by and will in turn affect other parts of the planet. Even as Haskell discovered an "ecological and evolutionary kinship with the forest," he also realized "an equally powerful sense of otherness...a realization of the enormity of [his] ignorance…[where] simple enumeration and naming of the mandala’s inhabitants lie far beyond [his] reach." Equally as informative as and far more enjoyable than any biology textbook, the book provides valuable insight and perspective on a world that is often missed in the bustle of modern society.
Exceptional observations of the biological world worthy of any naturalist’s library.
Journalist Sterba (Frankie's Place: A Love Story, 2003, etc.) employs humor and an eye for the absurd to document the sometimes bizarre conflicts that arise as a consequence of America's transformed relationship with nature.
As forest cover has grown back to more than two-thirds of its pre-colonial extent, wildlife recovery from the “so-called era of extermination in the last half of the nineteenth century” has accelerated. People who grew up with teddy bears and Disney's Bambi have different attitudes to furry, cuddly creatures than their grandparents did. Nowadays, someone can get death threats while trying to protect communities from resurgent populations of dangerous wild creatures like coyotes and bears, or even from the activities of feral cats. Sterba provides a summary history of the wilderness colonists found, the replacement of the great Eastern forest with farmland and the market-driven extermination of wildlife through commercial hunting and trapping. He continues with cases studies of beaver, deer, bear and geese to show how, as land has reverted to forest, human communities have been polarized by the development of “problems” with each of these species and others. The author presents a repeating pattern: At first, returners are welcomed and encouraged with food, only to be rejected as the dangerous downside begins to emerge. Detailed accounts of efforts to outline solutions, and also of such often-overlooked consequences of this pattern as roadkill, supplement this deeply conflicted overall picture.
An eye-opening take on how romantic sentimentalism about nature can have destructive consequences.
Stott (English Literature and Creative Writing/Univ. of East Anglia; The Coral Thief, 2009, etc.) conjures up the spirits of Darwin's scientific predecessors in this excellent follow-up to Darwin and the Barnacle (2003).
When Darwin finally published On the Origins of Species in 1859, he knew he would become the center of passionate debate and possibly even prosecution. However, he did not expect to be charged with “failing to acknowledge his predecessors”—a quotation from a letter sent to him by an Oxford geometry professor, Rev. Baden Powell, who himself faced the possibility of prosecution for heresy. In the first authorized American edition of his iconic work, Darwin attempted to rectify the situation by including a list of his predecessors. Stott amplifies Darwin's list and provides a lively account of the “pathfinders, iconoclasts, and innovators” who were Darwin's spiritual kin over the preceding 2,000 years. She chronicles their lives as they struggled to understand the relationship between extinct and existing species, including humans; she also examines the political and religious persecution they faced from their opponents. Stott begins with Aristotle, who was forced into exile on the island of Lesbos, where he stayed for four years. He dissected birds and fish and puzzled over sponges, which had characteristics of both animals and vegetables. Another of Darwin’s kindred spirits was Benoit de Maillet, who by the mid-18th century had assembled geological and fossil findings to substantiate his claim that the earth was billions of years old and that land species had evolved from sea creatures. Unfortunately, as Darwin learned after including Maillet on the list, Maillet also reported sightings of mermen. The author also includes discussions of, among others, Leonardo da Vinci, Swiss naturalist Abraham Trembley and the ninth-century Islamic philologist and lexicographer known as al-Jahiz.
Stott masterfully shows how Darwin, by discovering the mechanism of natural selection, made a unique contribution, but he did not stand alone—nor did he claim to.