It’s been a while since science nerds were true outcasts, but this group shines in the best of oddball company.

SCIENCE FAIR SEASON

TWELVE KIDS, A ROBOT NAMED SCORCH, AND WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN

A heart-gladdening tale of 11 students contesting for top honors in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

The Intel ISEF showcases the work of 1,500 high schoolers across the globe vying for $4 million in prizes and scholarships. It is the first-stop recruiting venue for universities, research and development labs and medical programs. The quality of work is astounding; said one judge: “The level of sophistication in these projects is in many cases beyond the level of graduate school and doctoral research.” Though Dutton (How We Do It: How the Science of Sex Can Make You a Better Lover, 2009) occasionally lapses into a schmaltzy mode—“The lesson I would learn from her was that the ultimate reward for doing science fairs isn’t fame, or money, or college scholarships…It’s about connecting with the people you care most about”—there is no denying her genuine admiration and affection for the contestants. The characters include Garrett, whose project brought heat and hot water to his hardscrabble family; BB, who brought her bout with leprosy to the fore; and Eliza, the anti-nerd, a rich, beautiful model who investigated the collapse of honeybee colonies and contended with her looks as a deterrent. Dutton describes the projects with an easeful clarity, illuminating the world of “the most hardworking, humbling, and heartbreaking group of young men and women.”

It’s been a while since science nerds were true outcasts, but this group shines in the best of oddball company.

Pub Date: May 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2379-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hyperion

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2011

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Not light reading but essential for policymakers—and highly recommended for the 40 million people who rely on the Great...

THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT LAKES

An alarming account of the “slow-motion catastrophe” facing the world’s largest freshwater system.

Based on 13 years of reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this exhaustively detailed examination of the Great Lakes reveals the extent to which this 94,000-square-mile natural resource has been exploited for two centuries. The main culprits have been “over-fishing, over-polluting, and over-prioritizing navigation,” writes Egan, winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. Combining scientific details, the stories of researchers investigating ecological crises, and interviews with people who live and work along the lakes, the author crafts an absorbing narrative of science and human folly. The St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks, canals, and channels leading to the Atlantic Ocean, which allows “noxious species” from foreign ports to enter the lakes through ballast water dumped by freighters, has been a central player. Biologically contaminated ballast water is “the worst kind of pollution,” writes Egan. “It breeds.” As a result, mussels and other invasive species have been devastating the ecosystem and traveling across the country to wreak harm in the West. At the same time, farm-fertilizer runoff has helped create “massive seasonal toxic algae blooms that are turning [Lake] Erie’s water into something that seems impossible for a sea of its size: poison.” The blooms contain “the seeds of a natural and public health disaster.” While lengthy and often highly technical, Egan’s sections on frustrating attempts to engineer the lakes by introducing predator fish species underscore the complexity of the challenge. The author also covers the threats posed by climate change and attempts by outsiders to divert lake waters for profit. He notes that the political will is lacking to reduce farm runoffs. The lakes could “heal on their own,” if protected from new invasions and if the fish and mussels already present “find a new ecological balance.”

Not light reading but essential for policymakers—and highly recommended for the 40 million people who rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-393-24643-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 4, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2017

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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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