SONG FOR THE BLUE OCEAN

ENCOUNTERS ALONG THE WORLD'S COASTS AND BENEATH THE SEAS

A fact-finding tour of troubled waters. Marine scientist and first-time author Safina, founder of the Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program, ranges far afield to substantiate fears that something has gone badly wrong in the oceans. The fault, of course, lies with humans. A commission has determined, for instance, that the number of bluefin tuna in the north Atlantic has declined by 90 percent in recent years. Not every one agrees. ``Fishermen tell me,'' Safina adds, ``that the scientists grossly underestimate the numbers.'' Along the Grand Banks off Canada, the legendary great shoals of cod have been decimated, causing the government of Canada to suspend the once vast cod-fishing industry. On the Pacific coast, salmon are fast disappearing, the victims of silted rivers, dams, and overfishing. And far out in the Pacific, sharks and rays, swordfish and skates are declining in number. Safina visits all these places, giving little lectures on fish ecology along the way (readers might otherwise never have known that in water of 57 degrees Fahrenheit, a swordfish maintains a cranial temperature of 84 degrees). He allows that the decline of fish has multiple causes; as one of his informants, a California farmer, remarks, ``It's not just the farmers or fishermen. It is water transfers, ocean temperatures, toxic pollutants, timbering, all these things.'' On the matter of those toxic pollutants Safina has much to say: He is rightly appalled that in many Pacific nations fish are caught by poisoning the waters with cyanide, a process that kills not only the fish but also fragile coral reefs, among the world's most endangered ecosystems. Industrialized nations, he notes, and especially Japan, aren't doing much to help matters, arguing over quotas and territorial limits instead of recognizing that without severe restrictions on fishing the oceans may not be much of a larder in years to come. A valuable account of the devastation we have wrought on what Safina calls ``planet Ocean''—and, thanks to the author's down-to-earth style, a pleasure to read.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-8050-4671-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1997

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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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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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