What keeps readers going in this occasionally challenging work are Pyenson’s clear love of his subject, his thrill at making...

SPYING ON WHALES

THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF EARTH'S MOST AWESOME CREATURES

A paleontologist and self-styled whale chaser weaves his own adventures into a rich account of the largest creatures on our planet.

Pyenson, the curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and prolific author of scientific articles in newspapers and popular magazines, is both enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable about whales. His research has taken him around the globe, from the Atacama Desert in Chile to examine newly discovered whale skeletons to a whaling station in a fjord in Iceland, where whalers carve up freshly caught whales. He has looked for answers to his questions about their evolution, biology, and behavior in the Arctic and Antarctic, Panama, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. He vividly shows how scientists work and the significant physical demands required to extract fossils from sand and rocks and dissect blubber and flesh from bones. Pyenson divides his account into three parts: the past, the present, and the future. He asks questions about how whales evolved from four-legged land animals, how they grew so big, how and what they eat, how they live today, and what the age of the Anthropocene holds for them. Although the book is packed with information, the author is quick to remind readers that, even among scientists, much about whales remains unknown. Many fossils that would reveal their evolution have not been found, and their behavior is often hidden in the deep ocean world. One particularly intriguing question arises: What can humans learn about surviving in a changing world from these creatures who for millennia have survived on a planet where oceans rose and fell and land masses shifted?

What keeps readers going in this occasionally challenging work are Pyenson’s clear love of his subject, his thrill at making a scientific discovery, and his depiction of the world of scientists at work.

Pub Date: June 26, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-2456-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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