A well-written and -documented challenge of some of the assumptions on both sides in the debate about global warming.

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ARMING MOTHER NATURE

THE BIRTH OF CATASTROPHIC ENVIRONMENTALISM

Hamblin (History/Oregon State Univ.; Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, 2009, etc.) explores how ideas about human intervention altering the environment have changed over time.

Current preoccupations with fossil-fuel emissions, carbon release and global warming are quite recent. Within the last 50-60 years, scientists and military planners have been working to master large-scale environmental effects, like changing the heat balance between the sun and the Earth or modifying the just-discovered Van Allen radiation belts. “Numerous ideas for creating catastrophic events through natural processes were presented, especially using hydrogen bombs as triggers,” writes the author. Proponents of such military interventions, like theoretical physicist Edward Teller, downplayed dangers to the global ecosystem, on the grounds that the energies deployed by humans were not large enough in scale to effect balances in the long run. Others, like Nobel Laureate Frederick Soddy, worried that decaying radioactive elements from H-bomb tests would ionize the atmosphere and affect global weather. Hamblin shows how successive U.S. presidents have expressed concerns about lack of knowledge and have sponsored treaties, as Richard Nixon did, regarding the banning of environmental modifications. John F. Kennedy, writes the author, “was diplomatically astute enough to see that the rest of the world did not see the earth as America's scientific playground.” Following the careers of scientists and their associations enables the author to document how the collaboration between scientists and the military continued to shape environmental thoughts and environmental sciences after the Cold War, even while the effects of nuclear weaponry were pushed aside.

A well-written and -documented challenge of some of the assumptions on both sides in the debate about global warming.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-19-974005-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2013

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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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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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