OUT OF THE CRATER

CHRONICLES OF A VOLCANOLOGIST

Fifty years” worth of scientific and cultural adventure on the volcanism front Fisher (Geology/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara). Fisher offers an account of just what he was up to out there studying volcanoes, why they caught and held his fascination. He’s not interested in proving his thoughts on pyroclastic flows or base surges, or in delineating the competition’s ideas. Not that he doesn’t introduce readers to his good friends tuff and scoria and the shocking nuee ardente (a volcanic hurricane of incandescent gas and particles). It’s just that he’s more interested in capturing the atmosphere of the old field days, when volcanologists tried to deconstruct their quarry——determine the chemistry, unravel the history, and discover the eruptive cycles and the types of eruptions that have occurred”—by going out and hitting it with a hammer to see what they could see. The very idea of being stuck in a room with a computer, simulating small-scale sediment gravity flows, even for all its advancement of science, strikes him as not nearly as much fun as walking through lava tubes, taking in the sweep of a 40-mile-wide caldera, or having the chance to meet all the odd characters and eat all the weird food that comes with a life of travel. The best material here is the deeply affectionate portraits of the wild places to which his research took him, from the Pacific Northwest to China and the Caribbean. Pompeii and the ancient volcanoes of Europe were “solitary but indescribably peaceful,” places where Fisher lost himself in the slow creep of geologic time, his imagination conjuring “great, roaring, glowing, orange-hot curtains” of liquid rock or the cataclysmic eruptions that laid down the deposits that became his life’s work. Appealing snapshots of a time when academic geologists wore boots, from one of its graybeards. (29 line illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-691-00226-6

Page Count: 175

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1998

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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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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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