BOOK: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

The winner of this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize, which is awarded annually to a work of science writing intended for a non-specialist audience, went to Andrea Wulf for her fantastic biography of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has long been a character of interest to me: not only is “Humboldtian science” a standard topic one learns about in history of science courses (especially Michael Dettelbach’s chapter in Cultures of Natural History), but, as readers here may know, Humboldt was an important influence on Darwin.

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Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Vintage Books, 2015), 552 pp.

Publisher’s description Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was the most famous scientist of his age, a visionary German naturalist and polymath whose discoveries forever changed the way we understand the natural world. Among his most revolutionary ideas was a radical conception of nature as a complex and interconnected global force that does not exist for the use of humankind alone. In North America, Humboldt’s name still graces towns, counties, parks, bays, lakes, mountains, and a river. And yet the man has been all but forgotten. In this illuminating biography, Andrea Wulf brings Humboldt’s extraordinary life back into focus: his prediction of human-induced climate change; his daring expeditions to the highest peaks of South America and to the anthrax-infected steppes of Siberia; his relationships with iconic figures, including Simón Bolívar and Thomas Jefferson; and the lasting influence of his writings on Darwin, Wordsworth, Goethe, Muir, Thoreau, and many others. Brilliantly researched and stunningly written, The Invention of Nature reveals the myriad ways in which Humboldt’s ideas form the foundation of modern environmentalism—and reminds us why they are as prescient and vital as ever.

In October I had the pleasure of attending a talk that Wulf gave about Humboldt for the Oregon Hardy Plant Society:

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For similar talks, check out the recording below…

Purchase The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World through the independent Powell’s City of Books [hardcover/paperback] or Amazon [hardcover/paperback] (affiliate links).

 

BOOK: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

When I became obsessed with dinosaurs in 1993 following seeing Jurassic Park on the big screen, one of the first serious dinosaur paleontology books I read – having found it on the shelf in my local public library – was paleoartist Gregory S. Paul‘s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide  (1988; see this three-part blog series about this book from Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs: 1 2 3). His vivid depictions of dinosaurs in action and streamlined lateral-view skeletal reconstructions became how I would imagine dinosaurs appearing as I continued to read up on the prehistoric beasts. And I credit all the reading I did on dinosaurs for introducing me to the larger subject of Darwin and evolution. So I am indeed a lover of quality books about dinosaurs.

Paul published in 2011 The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which included illustrations and descriptions of species beyond those that were predatory, as well as sections covering a wide range of topics in dinosaur biology and evolution, including the evolution of birds.

This year Paul published a second edition of The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, which has been updated with the many new dinosaur species described since the first edition was published (I believe it includes those discoveries through 2015). Paleontology is an ever-changing science, and this book will most likely need to be updated again in the future.

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Gregory S. Paul, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs: Second Edition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016), 2016. Hardcover, $35.00

Publisher’s description The best-selling Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs remains the must-have book for anyone who loves dinosaurs, from amateur enthusiasts to professional paleontologists. Now extensively revised and expanded, this dazzlingly illustrated large-format edition features some 100 new dinosaur species and 200 new and updated illustrations, bringing readers up to the minute on the latest discoveries and research that are radically transforming what we know about dinosaurs and their world. Written and illustrated by acclaimed dinosaur expert Gregory Paul, this stunningly beautiful book includes detailed species accounts of all the major dinosaur groups as well as nearly 700 color and black-and-white images—skeletal drawings, “life” studies, scenic views, and other illustrations that depict the full range of dinosaurs, from small feathered creatures to whale-sized supersauropods. Paul’s extensively revised introduction delves into dinosaur history and biology, the extinction of nonavian dinosaurs, the origin of birds, and the history of dinosaur paleontology, as well as giving a taste of what it might be like to travel back in time to the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

With almost 750 species’ descriptions, this book will surely get some use when my son and I wish to look up a dinosaur. But I will, as I have already done, find myself just picking up this book and perusing its pages, enjoying the colorful, anatomy-driven depictions of dinosaurs going about their dinosaurian days. And, as a field guide, Paul includes fun but thoughtful sections on how one might expect a dinosaur safari to actually take place and what if dinosaurs had actually survived, and given that, a quick discussion of large dinosaur conservation.

A preview of the book, including a nice overview of the history of dinosaur research and discoveries, can be seen here.

Purchase The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books (affiliate link).

Happy Origin Day!

Happy Origin Day! Today, November 24, 2016 marks the 157th annniversary of the publication of naturalist Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The book sold out on the first day to booksellers, and then quickly thereafter to the public. This photo, taken by my brother, is of a first edition on display at the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in southern California. Learn more about the book from Darwin Online here: http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Freeman_OntheOriginofSpecies.html

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BOOK: Evolutionary Tales

Here’s yet another book for kids about evolution:

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Matt Cubberly, Evolutionary Tales (The WilderWay, 2015), 24 pp. Illustrated by May Villani.

Publisher’s description Evolutionary Tales is a children’s book that teaches evolution through 10 poems focusing on the wildest-evolved creatures of our world! Our world is full of absolutely amazing creatures that have evolved and adapted to become truly incredible! And because our world is so diverse, Evolutionary Tales isn’t just one story! Instead, the book is a compilation of TEN wildly-different stories – each focusing on one fantastic creature! Each story is told in the form of a long poem, and each takes you into a specific niche. Kids love the close-up look into the tiny worlds all around them as they learn how the animals evolved to fill those roles. Some are quite funny – like a fish walking on land! And some are a bit scary – like the toothy angler fish down in the dark depths of the ocean! But whether you’re put into the sky, into the water, or out onto the land, you and your child will no doubt have an amazing adventure while reading AND learning!

While 9 of the 10 animals depicted are not species one would encounter in everyday life, one is: the Pileated Woodpecker, which we see every once and a while while exploring in our local forested natural areas in Portland.

Here’s a video about the book:

Purchase Evolutionary Tales through the publisher.

BOOK: Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle

So excited to see a kid’s picture book about Michael Faraday! (I have been working my way through John Tyndall letters as co-editor of volume 6 of The Correspondence of John Tyndall [volumes 1 and 2 have been published], and there are plenty of letters between Faraday and Tyndall). It would be fantastic if this author and illustrator work together on more history of science stories.

BURN: Michael Faraday's Candle. Answer the question,

Darcy Pattison, Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle (Little Rock, AR: Mims House, 2016), 32 pp. Illustrated by Peter Willis.

Publisher’s description WHAT MAKES A CANDLE BURN? Solid wax is somehow changed into light and heat. But how? Travel back in time to December 28, 1848 in London, England to one of the most famous juvenile science Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. British scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) encouraged kids to carefully observe a candle and to try to figure out how it burned. Since Faraday’s lecture, “The Chemical History of a Candle,” was published in 1861, it’s never been out of print; however, it’s never been published as a children’s picture book – till now. Faraday originally gave seven lectures on how a candle burns. Pattison has adapted the first 6000-word lecture to about 650 words for modern elementary students, especially for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum. Known as one of the best science experimenters ever, Faraday’s passion was always to answer the basic questions of science: “What is the cause? Why does it occur?”

Purchase Burn: Michael Faraday’s Candle through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books.

BOOK: The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins

For those with an interest in how literature has an effect on science, this new book from an English professor and former biologist will be of interest:

Devin Griffiths, The Age of Analogy: Science and Literature Between the Darwins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 352 pp.

Publisher’s description Erasmus Darwin and his grandson, Charles, were the two most important evolutionary theorists of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Although their ideas and methods differed, both Darwins were prolific and inventive writers: Erasmus composed several epic poems and scientific treatises, while Charles is renowned both for his collected journals (now titled The Voyage of the Beagle) and for his masterpiece, The Origin of Species.

In The Age of Analogy, Devin Griffiths argues that the Darwins’ writing style was profoundly influenced by the poets, novelists, and historians of their era. The Darwins, like other scientists of the time, labored to refashion contemporary literary models into a new mode of narrative analysis that could address the contingent world disclosed by contemporary natural science. By employing vivid language and experimenting with a variety of different genres, these writers gave rise to a new relational study of antiquity, or “comparative historicism,” that emerged outside of traditional histories. It flourished instead in literary forms like the realist novel and the elegy, as well as in natural histories that explored the continuity between past and present forms of life. Nurtured by imaginative cross-disciplinary descriptions of the past—from the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott and George Eliot to the poetry of Alfred Tennyson—this novel understanding of history fashioned new theories of natural transformation, encouraged a fresh investment in social history, and explained our intuition that environment shapes daily life.

Drawing on a wide range of archival evidence and contemporary models of scientific and literary networks, The Age of Analogy explores the critical role analogies play within historical and scientific thinking. Griffiths also presents readers with a new theory of analogy that emphasizes language’s power to foster insight into nature and human society. The first comparative treatment of the Darwins’ theories of history and their profound contribution to the study of both natural and human systems, this book will fascinate students and scholars of nineteenth-century British literature and the history of science.

Purchase The Age of Analogy through the publisher or the independent Powell’s City of Books.

KICKSTARTER: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Picture Book Adaptation

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It appears that folks really want a picture book adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (I would!), for while artist Sabina Radeva set a goal of under $3,000 for her Kickstarter campaign to produce her adaptation, at less than a day left for donating, the campaign has raised over $60,000! Check out sample images on her website and watch her video about the project: