Of course we must chlorinate our water, wash our hands, get vaccinated, and so on, Dunn argues persuasively and...

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NEVER HOME ALONE

FROM MICROBES TO MILLIPEDES, CAMEL CRICKETS, AND HONEYBEES, THE NATURAL HISTORY OF WHERE WE LIVE

A paean to biodiversity by a biologist who sees salvation in cultivating life’s infinite variety.

Dunn (Applied Ecology/North Carolina State Univ.; Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, 2017, etc.) reports on an impressively wide variety of fascinating creatures all over the world. For example, your hot water heater is home to the same thermal-loving bacteria found in hot springs. That cricket in the basement lives a meager existence, mostly eating dead stuff. The showerhead in your bathroom is a perfect biofilm sheltering bacteria not killed by chlorination. The learning quotient is high in this fact-filled text, but there are also opportunities for learning more, since, as the author notes, specialists tend to study exotic bugs in faraway places, ignoring what is literally underfoot. Who knew that those camel crickets in the basement have gut bacteria that could devour industrial waste? Dunn estimates that there are 250,0000 species that live with us, and most are benign or beneficial. Yet we often choose to kill them, with pesticides for the cockroaches, fleas, flies, and mosquitoes, and antibiotics for disease pathogens, resulting in resistance as well as much collateral damage to other life. Our zeal for sanitation has led to an increase in allergies and asthma, manifested by an overreactive immune response known as the hygiene hypothesis, for which Dunn presents good evidence. The author also discusses pets; whatever the cat dragged in might alter readers’ behavior toward their feline friends. For a change of pace, Dunn provides a chapter on the fermenting bacteria and yeasts that give us beer, wine, and foods like kimchi and sourdough bread. The surprise is that long-time preparers of these foods impart unique flavor to the products because their hands acquire some of the same fermenting species not normally found on skin.

Of course we must chlorinate our water, wash our hands, get vaccinated, and so on, Dunn argues persuasively and entertainingly. But we also need to relax and cultivate biodiversity for the good of all life on Earth.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5416-4576-9

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

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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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