BOOK: The Universe Verse

Last year I posted about a rhyming graphic guide to the history of the universe and evolution on Earth called The Universe Verse, by James Lu Dunbar. At the time he was still working on the third part, and now it is complete.

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James Lu Dunbar, The Universe Verse (James and Kenneth Publishers, 2014), 110 pp, hardcover.

Description The Universe Verse is a scientifically-accurate rhyming comic book about the origins of the universe, life on Earth and the human race. It introduces and illuminates the most fundamental features of our existence in a way that is engaging and accessible to a wide audience, including young children.

Dunbar is offering a free PDF download for the month of December! You can see a bunch of images from the book here.

I think The Universe Verse would make a unique holiday gift for a science lover in your life, young or old!

BOOK REVIEW: Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

I reviewed the second of the Terra Tempo graphic novel series for kids for the Portland Book Review in 2013:

In the first Terra Tempo graphic novel, Ice Age Cataclysm!, twins Jenna and Caleb and their know-it-all friend Ari find themselves, with the aid of a special map owned by their adventurous naturalist uncle, time traveling into the Ice Age of 15,000 years ago. They came across prehistoric mammals and witnessed the grand Missoula Flood, caused when a gigantic ice dam burst and Glacial Lake Missoula (in Montana) drained, its gushing torrent flowing west and sculpting the channeled scablands of the Pacific Northwest. The trio saw that the flood’s waters had covered their home – present day Portland, Oregon. Author David Shapiro, illustrator Christopher Herndon, and colorist Erica Melville continue the time traveling adventures in The Four Corners of Time, bringing the kids through several older time periods represented throughout the American southwest. They pass out in the Cambrian because of low oxygen levels, meet early tetrapods in the Devonian, get chased in the Carboniferous by humans, dodge pre-dinosaur reptiles in the Triassic, and face the tyrant lizard king in the Cretaceous. Those humans, by the way, are men out to abuse time traveling for profit, seeking to steal the maps the kids possess. A lesson in geology and paleontology, the Terra Tempo series so far has proved that learning science does not have to be boring. It can be – and perhaps should be – an adventure!

The third in the series has just been published, and when we got it in the mail, my eight-year-old son grabbed it and read it completely before I could even take a look at it!

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David Shapiro, Christopher Herndon (illustrator), and Erica Melville (colorist), Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution (Portland, OR: Craigmore Creations, 2014), 168 pp.

In their latest adventure through time and space, Jenna, Caleb, and Ari find themselves as students in a summer program at the prestigious Academy of Planetary Evolution. Their classroom: environments millions of years old across what is now the western United States and classic American natural history museums. Their subject: various topics in geology – such as plate tectonics – and paleontology – such as mammalian evolution. Their instructors: paleontologists and naturalists from the past, like Alfred Russel Wallace, Herman Melville (he was a student of nature as well as a writer), and Winifred Goldring (a paleontologist from New York).

The conflict in the story is how the kids – who are joined by two other female students – are intertwined in the struggle between the geosophists (those who want to use the maps to time travel in order in add to humanity’s knowledge of science) and the treasure hunters (others who wish to time travel in order to exploit earth’s natural resources to get wealthy). Obvious as a statement about our current society’s issues with things like oil, climate change, etc., this third installment ends with the suggestion of a continuing series with an increasingly environmental theme.

Dinosaurs, a nod to Alfred Russel Wallace, and stressing the importance of learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake and taking care of our planet? All in one graphic novel? Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution not only entertained my son and made him think. Adults can get something out of it, too.

BOOK: Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order

A couple of years ago I posted about a book that shared and provided context for 230 trees of life and similar diagrams, from the sixteenth century to the present: Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution by Theodore W. Pietsch. Fast forward two years, and there’s another book that looks at the same topic, but appears at first glance to have a deeper analysis of the images and their historical context.

 

J. David Archibald, Aristotle’s Ladder, Darwin’s Tree: The Evolution of Visual Metaphors for Biological Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 256 pp.

Publisher’s description Leading paleontologist J. David Archibald explores the rich history of visual metaphors for biological order from ancient times to the present and their influence on humans’ perception of their place in nature, offering uncommon insight into how we went from standing on the top rung of the biological ladder to embodying just one tiny twig on the tree of life. He begins with the ancient but still misguided use of ladders to show biological order, moving then to the use of trees to represent seasonal life cycles and genealogies by the Romans. The early Christian Church then appropriated trees to represent biblical genealogies. The late eighteenth century saw the tree reclaimed to visualize relationships in the natural world, sometimes with a creationist view, but in other instances suggesting evolution. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) exorcised the exclusively creationist view of the “tree of life,” and his ideas sparked an explosion of trees, mostly by younger acolytes in Europe. Although Darwin’s influence waned in the early twentieth century, by midcentury his ideas held sway once again in time for another and even greater explosion of tree building, generated by the development of new theories on how to assemble trees, the birth of powerful computing, and the emergence of molecular technology. Throughout Archibald’s far-reaching study, and with the use of many figures, the evolution of “tree of life” iconography becomes entwined with our changing perception of the world and ourselves.

The table of contents can be viewed here, and an excerpted chapter, “Blaming Aristotle,” here.

Darwin and Wallace notebooks in the news

University of Cambridge: The evolution of Darwin’s Origin: Cambridge releases 12,000 papers online

Natural History Museum (UK): Evolution pioneer’s illegible notebook brought back to life

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There have also been a number of recent reviews of John van Wyhe’s Dispelling the Darkness and papers all taking van Wyhe to task regarding details of Wallace’s life and work:

Journal of the History of Biology: Charles Smith, “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Road to Natural Selection, 1844–1858,” a response to John van Wyhe’s article also in the JBH, “A Delicate Adjustment: Wallace and Bates on the Amazon and ‘The Problem of the Origin of Species'”

Current Biology: James T. Costa and George Beccaloni, “Deepening the darkness? Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago”

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences: Martin Fichman, “Wallace’s travels and theories in the Malay Archipelago”

BOOK REVIEW: Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe

Ewa Prokop, Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe (Nottingham, UK: JMD Media Ltd., 2014), 64 pp. Illustrated by Diana Catchpole.

Ewa Prokop, who previously published a book about her time studying the English landscapes that Darwin was very close to (in Shropshire for his youth and in Downe for married life until his death), has written a book for children that uses Darwin’s studies of flora and fauna around the village of Downe as a means to teach about evolution by natural selection. In Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe, she does this through fourteen short stories placing Darwin in conversation with various wildlife in the countryside surrounding his home of four decades, Down House. For an article on a UK website, Prokop said, “People often focus on the exotic species Darwin discovered when on his Beagle voyage, but I wanted to highlight the amazing range of wildlife that could, and can still, be found in south-east England in an area Darwin knew well and studied intensively.” Prokop dedicated this new book “To those who strive to teach children about British wildlife.” Many current advocates for connecting children to nature stress that children should learn more about the animals that live where they live, part of their home. Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle is known for asking, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”

Illustrations of a wren and her nest and a curious boy by Diana Catchpole

Coincidentally, one of the fourteen animals that converse with Darwin is a wren. In “Darwin & the Wren,” we find the naturalist exploring in a meadow behind Down House. He ponders the opening and closing of leaflets of plants in response to the intensity of the sun, and references research by Batalin (such observations are noted in Darwin’s 1880 book, The Power of Movement in Plants, where he cites the Russian plant physiologist Alexander Theodorowicz Batalin). Then, seeing from where a wren flew out of some bushes, he peeks in to discover its nest, with three eggs. The words exchanged between Darwin and the wren concern his interest in her colors and ability to camouflage and her distress over his having made her nest of notice to possible egg thieves. Darwin later brings a young boy to see the nest, much to the wren’s dismay, and he learns a lesson from the mother bird: not to collect her eggs!

What I like about this story with the wren is that it brings in actual observations Darwin made in Downe, and like he was with his own children, it shows how Darwin instilled a sense of wonder in nature with youth around him. Through all the stories, we see Darwin himself change, from a balding yet non-bearded younger man (and young father) to the sage of Down House, the classic image of Darwin as an old, wise, and classically Victorian-bearded gentleman. Yet in all the stories, he remains curious and active, constantly asking questions and exploring around his village. His observations and experiments discussed in these stories all matter in some sense to his larger project: evolution by natural selection. They show his thinking process concerning topics as varied as:

- cross-pollination in plants; a fox named Vulpes discusses with Darwin the forms of primroses and cowslips (The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, 1877)

Illustration from <i>Darwin's Wild Pursuits Around Downe</i> by Diana Catchpole

Illustration of an inquisitive fox by Diana Catchpole

- struggle for existence; a field mouse informs Darwin how the existence of predatory mammals such as cats, via a food chain through field mice and bumble bees, might determine the growth of red clover (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 3)

Illustration of Darwin and a field mouse by Diana Catchpole

- adaptation; a lizard named Lacerta discusses with Darwin the insectivorous sundew plant Drosera, showing how environmental conditions can lead to new adaptations in organisms (Insectivorous Plants, 1875)

Illustration of Darwin studying Drosera by Diana Catchpole

- and geographical distribution; a duck named Anas helps Darwin to understand how organisms can carry seeds and assist in propagating other species in new areas (On the Origin of Species, 1859, chapter 7)

Illustration of Darwin and a duck by Diana Catchpole

Ten more talkative animals (including the wren, and many named by their genus name) and ten more topics of import to Darwin’s life-long pursuit of understanding the origin of new species (all based on actual observations and experiments conducted by Darwin), along with Diana Catchpole’s charming illustrations, make up the rest of Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe. There is a lot to like about this little book, from the presentation of Darwin as a naturalist and mentor to youth and details of his research, to the likeable countryside critters and importance placed on exploring in local nature.

Prokop wrote Darwin’s Wild Pursuits Around Downe for children ages 9-11, and has provided much more material on her website Mad About Charles Darwin about the stories and resources for teachers (in the UK specifically, but I don’t see why teachers elsewhere couldn’t benefit from her efforts to teach more kids about nature and Charles Darwin). Facts regarding each story – when it takes place, Darwin’s actual research, etc. – are shared in The Truth Behind the Fiction (PDF), and evolution curriculum resources for teachers are listed by story here.

BOOK: Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now

An academic volume has resulted from a a day-long symposium held within the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia in 2011. The research in the book serves as a comparison of Darwin’s work and books on orchids (2012 was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Fertilisation of Orchids) in the mid-nineteenth century to research conducted by scientists since then.

Image from Amazon.com

Retha Edens-Meier and Peter Bernhardt, eds. Darwin’s Orchids: Then and Now (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 384 pp.

Publisher’s description For biologists, 2009 was an epochal year: the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of a book now known simply as The Origin of Species. But for many botanists, Darwin’s true legacy starts with the 1862 publication of another volume: On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing, or Fertilisation of Orchids. This slim but detailed book with the improbably long title was the first in a series of plant studies by Darwin that continues to serve as a global exemplar in the field of evolutionary botany. In Darwin’s Orchids, an international group of orchid biologists unites to celebrate and explore the continuum that stretches from Darwin’s groundbreaking orchid research to that of today. Mirroring the structure of Fertilisation of Orchids, Darwin’s Orchids investigates flowers from Darwin’s home in England, through the southern hemisphere, and on to North America and China as it seeks to address a set of questions first put forward by Darwin himself: What pollinates this particular type of orchid? How does its pollination mechanism work? Will an orchid self-pollinate or is an insect or other animal vector required? And how has this orchid’s lineage changed over time? Diverse in their colors, forms, aromas, and pollination schemes, orchids have long been considered ideal models for the study of plant evolution and conservation. Looking to the past, present, and future of botany, Darwin’s Orchids will be a vital addition to this tradition.

The table of contents can be viewed here.