An enchanting, accessible tour of the seashell and its place and purpose within the natural world.

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SPIRALS IN TIME

THE SECRET LIFE AND CURIOUS AFTERLIFE OF SEASHELLS

British marine biologist Scales (Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, from Myth to Reality, 2009) reinvigorates conchology and the lost art of seashell appreciation.

Appalled that their reputation for enigmatic splendor as “glorious objects” has become tarnished, replaced with modern, kitschy “inelegant clutter” on counters and shelves, the author diligently explores the purpose and allure of seashells and introduces a selection of scientists and artists who study and create art from them. Uninterested in creating just another comprehensive shell guide, Scales skillfully focuses her narrative primarily on mollusks and how, living or dead, they connect with the human world. Through stories and personal experiences, beginning with her fascination with them as a girl on the beaches of Cornwall, England, and later, sea diving as an adult, she demonstrates her encyclopedic knowledge of Conchifera through absorbing chapters reaching back to the mollusk’s primitive relatives: “all manner of shrimpy, crabby, wormy creatures that look very little like any living species” slithering across a Cambrian seabed. Scales spins spellbinding science throughout, introducing readers to carnivorous cone snails that spit out paralytic darts, the “vacancy chains” of hermit crabs, the lacquered luster of the prized cowry shell, and the fluttery sex lives of sea butterflies and bivalves. Astutely referencing the work of a variety of biologists, fishery scientists, and passionate beachcombers, Scales examines how these chalky exoskeletons and their spiraled patterns are strategically produced by their hosts, considers their symbolism, and ponders the mannerisms in which humans collect once-living objects: “They appeal to the hoarder in us all, the part of us that wants to have and keep things, especially those mementos that remind us of a different time and place.” From a cautionary perspective, however, the author would prefer that admirers “resist temptation and leave them all alone.”

An enchanting, accessible tour of the seashell and its place and purpose within the natural world.

Pub Date: July 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4729-1136-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: April 21, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2015

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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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