You’ll never confuse a nimbocumulus with a cumulonimbus again, once you finish this entertaining and a luminous history of...

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THE INVENTION OF CLOUDS

HOW AN AMATEUR METEOROLOGIST FORGED THE LANGUAGE OF THE SKIES

When Luke Howard named the clouds 200 years ago, it was an exciting, popular event. Science writer Hamblyn taps into that electricity and sends it running through the pages of this exemplary, scientific-history deubt.

Others have tried to get a handle on clouds, the most ungraspable element in nature, explains Hamblyn. There were Thales of Miletus, the Taoist Ministry of Thunder, and three men whose heads were always far into the atmosphere: Democritus, Aristotle, and Lucretius. The brilliant if quixotic Robert Hooke had classified clouds in the mid-17th century (“cleer,” “checker’d,” “hairy,” “water’d,” and “lowring”), but it was Howard’s labels (“cirrus,” “stratus,” “cumulous,” and “nimbus”) that seized the popular imagination and held fast. The turn of the 19th century was a great age of science and talk, and the natural sciences were in “a search for narrative order among events. Since the sky has always been more read than measured, it has always been the province of words.” If something as restless and mutable as clouds could be captured in variations of four terms—well, that made Howard a latter-day alchemist who brought home the bacon. The author does a peerless job setting the scientific scene during the period, describing the increasingly charged atmosphere at the hall where Howard unveiled his classification, and the remarkable journey it led him on into “the nacreous realm of fame”: Goethe took his paper and made a poem out of it, while Constable consulted his work during his studies of clouds. Hamblyn is a particularly graceful writer, even when, rapt in the sound of his own voice, he finds another way to say what he said the sentence before. “Clouds themselves, by their very nature, are self-ruining and fragmentary,” he says, then quickly reminds us that “every cloud is a small catastrophe, a world of vapor that dies before our eyes.”

You’ll never confuse a nimbocumulus with a cumulonimbus again, once you finish this entertaining and a luminous history of meteorology.

Pub Date: July 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-374-17715-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2001

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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