Able retelling of an epic adventure the 20th century has all but forgotten

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HUMBOLDT’S COSMOS

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE LATIN AMERICAN JOURNEY THAT CHANGED THE WAY WE SEE THE WORLD

Longtime book-publishing exec Helferich debuts with the chronicle of a journey so arduous it makes the Lewis and Clark expedition seem like a mere excursion.

Emerson once compared explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt to Julius Caesar, and certainly his Central and South American trek has all the drama of a power struggle in ancient Rome. It took Humboldt and his single companion, Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, from 1799 to 1804 to traverse 5,000 miles of some of the most forbidding, dangerous, and bleakest terrain on Earth. Add the unprecedented range and depth of cross-disciplinary scientific measurements, researches, experiments, and data collections (including plant and animal specimens) by a man nominated as the consummate intellectual by science pundit Stephen Jay Gould, and the epic stands as unique. At the very least, the unheralded mine inspector (trained in his native Prussia) was the most formidable dilettante who ever lived, chucking a career at age 29 to go off on a self-financed trip to satisfy his curiosity about both terra incognita and natural phenomena. There are more places named after Humboldt, Helferich asserts, than anyone else, from a Humboldt Bay in California to one in New Guinea. His exploits simply inspired accolades; even though he did not actually discover the Humboldt Current off South America, he was first to take its temperature and clock its flow. The author breaks little ground in following his subject, primarily through Humboldt’s own vast body of published works. Forced to address the unavoidable question raised by a life spent with close male companions, some of whom inspired what can only be called love letters, Helferich hews to the claim by “most historians” that these relationships did not involve sex. Also noted: the conflict between Humboldt’s intense personal aversion to slavery and his seeking of patronage from Spanish colonials, its most malignant practitioners.

Able retelling of an epic adventure the 20th century has all but forgotten

Pub Date: April 14, 2004

ISBN: 1-592-40052-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Gotham Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2004

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An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF PLANTS

A neurobiologist reveals the interconnectedness of the natural world through stories of plant migration.

In this slim but well-packed book, Mancuso (Plant Science/Univ. of Florence; The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior, 2018, etc.) presents an illuminating and surprisingly lively study of plant life. He smoothly balances expansive historical exploration with recent scientific research through stories of how various plant species are capable of migrating to locations throughout the world by means of air, water, and even via animals. They often continue to thrive in spite of dire obstacles and environments. One example is the response of plants following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Three decades later, the abandoned “Exclusion Zone” is now entirely covered by an enormous assortment of thriving plants. Mancuso also tracks the journeys of several species that might be regarded as invasive. “Why…do we insist on labeling as ‘invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories?” asks the author. “On a closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.” Throughout, Mancuso persuasively articulates why an understanding and appreciation of how nature is interconnected is vital to the future of our planet. “In nature everything is connected,” he writes. “This simple law that humans don’t seem to understand has a corollary: the extinction of a species, besides being a calamity in and of itself, has unforeseeable consequences for the system to which the species belongs.” The book is not without flaws. The loosely imagined watercolor renderings are vague and fail to effectively complement Mancuso’s richly descriptive prose or satisfy readers’ curiosity. Even without actual photos and maps, it would have been beneficial to readers to include more finely detailed plant and map renderings.

An authoritative, engaging study of plant life, accessible to younger readers as well as adults.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-63542-991-6

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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