I recently caught a clip of two women on The View discussing how they do not “believe” in evolution. Discouraging, but then I shouldn’t really be surprised. After all, as Chris and I reported in Unscientific America, 46 percent of Americans agree with them–and think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. So what can we do about this kind of anti-science sentiment?
Brian Switek’s fascinating new book Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature is assuredly a part of the solution. I’ve long been a fan of Switek’s writing and follow his terrific blog Laelaps on the Wired Science network. This book is not only as good as I expected–it’s better.
For anyone interested in fossils, the history of science, and evolution, Written in Stone is a must read! Packed with the latest research and composed in an engaging style, it can be easily understood by scientists and laypeople alike. The book’s a unique mix of scientifically rigorous information and elegant accounts of life on our planet. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on fossil whales where Switek describes how researchers struggled to understand their ancestry. Parts of this book reads like a mystery while you also get historical tales from the field. There are many interesting characters as well and I really enjoyed the images included throughout.
Most of all, Written in Stone is important because it connects the dots on evolution. Switek provides a compelling narrative about the process of adaptation–including how we are part of the story. His prose is wonderful, and I especially love the ending–which I won’t give away here (but would like to!).
This excellent book is coming to a bookstore near you next week and should be of interest to everyone who possesses a natural curiosity about the world. So go buy it!
Photographed in Alaska in Denali Park at Wonder Lake by Hugh Rose Photography
For Day 4 of Book Week, I’m focusing on a unique read from artist Franke James entitled Bothered by My Green Conscience: How an SUV-driving, imported-strawberry-eating urban dweller can go green. This is no ordinary book. James uses colorful artwork and photography to convey her message and the result is an extremely successful convergence of images and ideas. In the author’s own words:
Bothered by My Green Conscience is the story of my true-life adventures in going green. It includes the story of us selling our only car (an SUV), winning approval from Toronto City Hall for the right to build a green driveway (and actually building it as a long weekend DIY project), rediscovering eccentric glamour in my own closet, understanding the real poop on social change, and also writing a visual letter to my future Grandkids in 2020, and wondering how they will judge us. The collection of five visual essays was published as a 160-page full color book by New Society Publishers in April 2009.
I really enjoyed flipping through this creative account of climate change and personal decisions. I’m not alone either: Bothered by My Green Conscience recently won the 2010 Green Book Festival Award for Graphic Novels. Visit Franke at her website here to see more of her artwork. Read More
For Day 3 of Book Week, I’m skipping ahead to one I haven’t finished yet, but am currently devouring… American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Of Its Food (and what we can do about it) by Jonathan Bloom.
I previously posted about this title after the New Scientist piece on food waste I co-wrote with Michael Webber sparked a good deal of interest around the web. (Food waste accounts for a whopping 2 percent of annual energy consumption in the U.S.!). Naturally I’ve been curious to read Bloom’s perspective considering he’s been pondering the problem since 2005:
What Tom Vanderbilt did for traffic and Brian Wansink did for mindless eating, Jonathan Bloom does for food waste. The topic couldn’t be timelier: As more people are going hungry while simultaneously more people are morbidly obese, American Wasteland sheds light on the history, culture, and mindset of waste while exploring the parallel eco-friendly and sustainable-food movements. As the era of unprecedented prosperity comes to an end, it’s time to reexamine our culture of excess.
Working at both a local grocery store and a major fast food chain and volunteering with a food recovery group, Bloom also interviews experts—from Brian Wansink to Alice Waters to Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen—and digs up not only why and how we waste, but, more importantly, what we can do to change our ways.
So far, American Wasteland is packed with a lot of startling information compiled an an easy to digest package. Bloom presents the topic in an engaging style and tackles related issues from many angles by looking at each step in the process from industry to consumer. Ultimately he provides real world solutions that might just work to waste less and distribute more–if we makes some big changes.
For day 2 of Book Week, I’m highlighting Annie Murphy Paul’s eye-opening Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest of Our Lives. You’ve likely already seen this one on the cover of TIME, last weekend’s New York Times Book Review, or television.
How much does an expectant mother’s health and experiences during pregnancy influence her child through adulthood? A LOT! Paul explores factors like weight gain, stress, diet, disease resistance, environmental toxins, and more delving into the science behind how our months in the womb influence our lives:
Author and journalist Annie Murphy Paul ventures into the laboratories of fetal researchers, interviews experts from around the world, and delves into the rich history of ideas about how we’re shaped before birth. She discovers dramatic stories: how individuals gestated during the Nazi siege of Holland in World War II are still feeling its consequences decades later; how pregnant women who experienced the 9/11 attacks passed their trauma on to their offspring in the womb; how a lab accident led to the discovery of a common household chemical that can harm the developing fetus; how the study of a century-old flu pandemic reveals the high personal and societal costs of poor prenatal experience…With the intimacy of a personal memoir and the sweep of a scientific revolution, Origins presents a stunning new vision of our beginnings that will change the way you think about yourself, your children, and human nature itself.
While you may already have heard of some of the studies included, never before have they been compiled this comprehensive manner illustrating how they are related. Admittedly, Origins may make a few expectant mothers (my friends among them) extremely cautious–but that’s not a bad thing. Paul seamlessly combines the latest prenatal research with a compelling and relatable narrative that makes for excellent science writing and reading.
Learn more about this fascinating book at the Origins website.
Ask questions, share photos, join the discussion!
The first book I’d like to highlight for Book Week is Frederick Grinnell’s Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic. This one came out last year, but I didn’t have a chance to read it until more recently. In short, it’s a fantastic example of science written for broad audiences.
Grinnell describes how real life researchers bring their own interests and passions to their work. Through the discovery process, they try to learn new things about the world. Through the credibility process, they try to convince other scientists that what they have learned is correct. Diversity of interests and backgrounds amongst researchers enhances both discovery and credibility. Achieving success depends on intuition and commitment as well as on logic and objectivity. Grinnell scratches the surface of the anonymous and somewhat boring “scientific method” and shows readers the excitement, risk and adventure underneath.
Grinnell does a wonderful job of making science relevant to those outside of a so-called academic bubble who are interested to learn more about the process. He also provides a multidimensional view of who scientists are and what drives them. Not surprisingly, Everyday Practice of Science was chosen to receive the Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
Also of interest to intersection readers, Grinnell eloquently closes with a piece on humility and the relationship between science and religion:
Given the global level of poverty, disease, and depletion of environmental resources, I worry that the scientific attitude conflates power with progress. Perhaps solving global problems will require scientific and religious attitudes–both types of faith–rather than one or the other.
Over the summer we’ve received many, many books, but between traveling and personal commitments have had little time for reviewing them. That changes this week!
Each day we’ll have a post on a (relatively) new science book to help you choose good reads for the Fall! And we promise, many of these will fit the bill…
This is a guest post by Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake published in May 2010. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of bonobos at at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Congo.
I had been spending a fair bit of time studying bonobos at a sanctuary in Congo, so somehow I missed Sara Gruen’s runaway bestseller Water For Elephants, which is now being made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison. But this year I was ready and anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ape House, Gruen’s new novel, and one of the few works of fiction ever written about bonobos.
Writing a novel about bonobos is like trying to write about unicorns – most people don’t know they exist. However, unlike unicorns, bonobos are very real. They are our closest living relatives, along with chimpanzees, and share 98.7% of our DNA. But while chimpanzees are male dominated and occasionally beat their females and kill each other, bonobos are female dominated and their society has relatively little violence. Read More
In the latest New Scientist, I have a review of a new book by climatologist Laurence C. Smith of UCLA, which is entitled The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. I have to say, it’s really a tour de force. Smith argues that four megatrends–climate change, population growth, globalization, and resource demand–are setting up a world that looks like this:
…many of the world’s 9 billion-plus people will swelter in teeming, dirty and often corruption-plagued megacities like Lagos, Dhaka and Karachi. Others will be stealing water from farms to supply unsustainable cities like Los Angeles. Meanwhile, people in the NORCs [Northern Rim Countries] are living like kings. The leaders in quality of life will be towns you’ve never heard of, like Churchill in Manitoba and Iqaluit in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. (Buy your real estate now!)
Who are the NORCs, and why will they be winners? To quote my review again:
There are 8 NORCs: the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (Greenland), Norway and Iceland. In Smith’s view, they will be the grand beneficiaries of dramatic Arctic warming that will create a more hospitable far-northern climate, open up valuable resources (especially natural gas) for extraction, drive economic growth (including a boom in tourism) and trigger northward population flows.
To hear Smith tell it, the NORC cup runneth over. Much of the Earth will grow increasingly parched, but the already plentiful freshwater resources of the NORCs will only increase as global warming boosts northern precipitation. And while much of the Earth will see continuing population explosions and, in some places, struggles for food, the NORCs have sparsely populated northern fringes and will see their agricultural productivity rise.
What do you think? Is that the world in 2050? Can Smith really safely predict such a thing?