A finely drawn chronicle of fieldwork, with an appealing moral edge: “. . . a plea for conservation, and the basic research...

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THE TAPIR’S MORNING BATH

MYSTERIES OF THE TROPICAL RAIN FOREST AND THE SCIENTISTS WHO ARE TRYING TO SOLVE THEM

An intriguing story of time spent with the field scientists of Panama’s Barro Colorado Island, from magazine journalist Royte.

Barro Colorado Island is six square miles of tropical wonder in the middle of the Panama Canal that has, since 1923, been the site of a Smithsonian-administered research center. There, scientists of many stripes seek to take the measure of the baffling mechanics of the tropical forest, to try to answer Darwin’s question: “What explains the riot?” Royte, in turn, went to seek the scientists’ measure. Who were these people studying tent-making bats, the role of epiphytes in anthropod diversity, the limits to the population density of spiny rats? She reports back on the daily life at the center and of the staff members, some more, some less endearing but all dedicated to their work. Among them are old fashioned naturalists who observe, take notes, and draw conclusions, as well as thinkers of the big picture—of mutualism and the origin and persistence of species—but fewer and fewer are permitted such cerebrating: “Sadly, unorthodox thinking and broad studies are now neither encouraged nor rewarded.” Royte becomes as comfortable among the “classic BCI weirdo—smart and nerdy, hyperfocused on work and socially awkward, a festival of scratching, toe-tapping, and other expressions of nervous energy,” as she is working with the handfuls of young field assistants doing the droog work. Almost all, however, have a passion for fieldwork, putting up with the seemingly endless physical misery—believe it—for the joy of studying evolution at ground zero. They also give Royte a chance to witness the disconnect between doing fieldwork on biodiversity and acting on biodiversity’s behalf; importantly for Royte, the fruits of the field scientists’ work have to be marshaled for conservation planning.

A finely drawn chronicle of fieldwork, with an appealing moral edge: “. . . a plea for conservation, and the basic research that made it possible, that anyone can understand.”

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 2001

ISBN: 0-395-97997-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2001

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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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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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