The insertion of notes at the end of each chapter rather than at the back of the book gives it a textbook feel, which may...

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THE END OF PLENTY

THE RACE TO FEED A CROWDED WORLD

Hard facts, solid research, multiple viewpoints, and well-told stories combine to give high impact to this compelling look at the challenge of feeding the world’s burgeoning population without destroying the planet.

Science writer Bourne, who was trained as an agronomist, starts by looking back at the warnings of Malthus, the great Bengal famine of 1943, and the so-called green revolution of the 1960s. The author stresses that while the factors that drove the green revolution have not gone away, crop yields have declined and the damage to soil, water, forests, and climate have increased. At the same time, high demand for grain caused by population growth, biofuels, and meat-heavy diets (the growing Chinese demand for pork rates an entire chapter) has kept food prices high. Bourne chronicles his travels to the Indian state of Punjab, where natural farming is becoming more widespread; to sites in Panama, Vancouver Island, Rhode Island, and Virginia, where aquaculture, a kind of blue revolution, shows promise; and to Ukraine, in his eyes “one of the biggest wastes of agricultural potential on the planet” thanks to civil war and corruption. While water problems get short shrift—there is only a brief section on water-saving technologies—the author goes much deeper into the pros and cons of genetically modified crops and the growth of the modern organic farming movement, a trend that he views as hopeful for increasing food production without adverse environmental consequences. The take-home message is that there are ways to increase the world’s food supply, and smart people are working on the issue, but if population growth is not curbed and if the world continues on its present track, disaster is inevitable.

The insertion of notes at the end of each chapter rather than at the back of the book gives it a textbook feel, which may put off some readers. It should not: this call to arms is lucid, informative, and even entertaining, fully deserving a wide readership.

Pub Date: June 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-393-07953-1

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

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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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