These well-crafted tales of bio-inspired innovation will entrance general readers and warrant the close attention of...

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HOW HUMANS ARE TAPPING INTO NATURE'S SECRETS TO DESIGN AND BUILD A BETTER FUTURE

Los Angeles Times science writer Khan debuts with a richly detailed account of biologically inspired engineering.

Snakes that fly; geckos that walk on walls; blindfolded seals that track swimming objects by following their invisible wakes. These are among the “weird and wonderful” discoveries in nature that are helping scientists find ways to improve human technology, writes the author of this meticulous, well-written book. Following researchers from Woods Hole to an African desert, she reveals how cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research is harnessing the efficiency of nature’s “most astounding innovations” to make human life better “in a world where we’re running out of resources, in which we need to learn to live sustainably.” Grouping her stories into thematic sections—materials science, mechanics of movement, architecture of systems, and sustainability—she offers lucid, engaging discussions of a remarkable range of scientific work. Consider the cuttlefish, a cousin of the octopus. A shape-shifter with the many-fingered face of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional god, Cthulhu, the creature can blend in to its surroundings by changing colors and patterns (with an obvious application to camouflage). It uses the same color-changing to hypnotize prey. Other stories show how scientists are building robots that mimic the gecko’s ability to cling to smooth walls (for possible use in disaster zones); refining hydrogen-producing artificial leaves that can serve as clean, renewable energy sources; and studying mound-building termites to inform human architecture. Khan explores fully the science behind nature’s many innovative abilities and how it is being harnessed. At the same time, she offers fascinating portraits of scientists at work—e.g., the ant researcher who studies the “personalities” of some 300 ant colonies in annual visits to the Southwest and two physicists whose dead-serious study of termite mounds is offset by their hilarious “odd-couple” behavior, reminiscent of the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation.

These well-crafted tales of bio-inspired innovation will entrance general readers and warrant the close attention of scientists and technologists.

Pub Date: April 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-250-06040-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!

SILENT SPRING

It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

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