“Best American Science Writing 2007″ Edited by Gina Kolata (Harper Perennial, 2007)

Best American Science Writing 2007starstarstar

Since this is the “best American science writing” of the year, you know it’s going to be good.  What’s amazing is the variety of subject matter that just the term “science” covers.  The result is a collection of incredible articles covering the latest discoveries and breakthroughs in the many different fields of science.

While this collection may not be for the average person who has little-to-no knowledge of science – some background is necessary – the beauty of a collection of articles, like a collection of short stories, is if you don’t like the particular article or find it too complicated, you can simply skip to the next.  The first article, “The Theory of Everything” by Tyler Cabot covers the completion next year of a vastly superior particle accelerator in Switzerland.  With the results from this giant machine, physics and science may be advanced greatly, with astonishing discoveries made.  Cabot talks about this new device, as well as providing a summary of the important theories in science right now proposing possible answers to the famous Unification Theory: the theory linking relativity and quantum mechanics, or in Douglas Adams’ words: “Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

Robin Marantz Henig provides the latest ideas and technology on telling whether someone is lying or not in “Looking for the Lie.”  Joshua Davis discusses the unique condition of prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.”  A lot of people don’t even realize they have it; some develop it after a severe head wound or a stroke.  It is a condition where the person simply does not recognize faces at all, as if they are blank pages that mean nothing to that person.  The people suffering from this condition often have to use clues like clothes and the sound of a voice to recognize a person.  But now with online groups linking these people together, breakthroughs are being made, as science goes one step closer to finding out the root cranial cause of this condition.

In “A Depression Switch,” David Dobbs talks about a new technique for helping patients who suffer from a form of depression so severe that no medication will help, and they are left with no choice but to remain in a padded cell.  The procedure involves implanting tiny electrodes to a specific point in the brain, known as Area 25, attached to a small pacemaker that emits a minute four-volt charge.  Miraculously, patients feel the depression go away, and whatever was missing in their lives returns instantly.  It really seems to act like a switch and be as simple as that.  With almost twenty patients, the new procedure is very much still in its infant stages, but could one day be a successful cure to this form of severe depression.

Oliver Sacks, Elizabeth Kolbert, Sylvia Nasar and Atul Gawande are just a few of the authors whose articles are featured in this collection, running the gamut from space and the universe, to mathematics, to neuroscience, to global warming and environmental awareness, to what science aids on blockbuster movies like The Hulk actually do.  The Best American Science Writing 2007 will teach you things you never even knew were being studied, as well as give you hope that there are still many people out there working to make this world a better place.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 21st 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Born Standin Up” by Steve Martin (Scribner, 2007)

Born Standing Upstarstarstarstar

Actor/writer Steve Martin’s latest book, Born Standing Up, is neither a novel nor a complete autobiography.  It is an insightful and entertaining read about Steve Martin’s rise to fame through comedy, starting during his teen years and leading up to his success as an actor in blockbuster movies.

The book begins with Steve’s birth in a classic American family, with a supportive mother and a father who always wanted to pursue a career in comedy but never did, sticking to a more “productive” and safer job.  From a very young age, Steve felt the need to be on a stage, entertaining an audience whether it was with comedic stories, amusing jokes, or slapstick magic tricks.  When Steve was living with his family in Anaheim, CA, on July 17th, 1955, Disneyland opened its doors for the first time.  He immediately went over and managed to get a job selling programs to park attendees.  Steve Martin soon became firmly established as a Disneyland employee, climbing the ranks until he took the job as an entertainer performing tricks at the magic shop in the park.

In his later teen years, Steve began working with different groups in stage comedy.  It was the start of his comedy career, when he was barely known, but would never give up.  After falling in love with and falling out with Stormie Sherk, later known as Stormie Omartian, he pursued an interest in philosophy, attending Cal State Long Beach and then transferring to UCLA due to where he was performing.  Eventually it became too hard for him, and he wanted to dedicate himself more to his slowly growing comedy career.

He set a goal for himself: if by thirty he hadn’t made it, he would change careers.  He traveled across the country, getting work wherever he could, making friends and contacts.  Thirty came and went, but he didn’t quit.  His name became known, his audiences grew larger, and his routine became longer and funnier.  It was at the point when he started drawing thousands that he knew he’d made it, as well as recording a number of comedy albums that were bestsellers.  He also began performing on a new stand-up live comedy TV show called Saturday Night Live.

It was during 1980, when Steve Martin was performing an astonishing number of shows a week, his energy and stamina sapped, the audience numbers beginning to shrink, that he knew his stand-up career was over.  It was a brilliant move by Martin, to stop when he was still at a relative high point.  He turned to movies, using some of his stage material and working on a screenplay for a movie that would eventually be called The Jerk.  The movie was an instant success, becoming a cult favorite, and was the perfect start to Steve Martin’s movie career.

While Born Standing Up provides a detailed biography to Steve Martin’s stand-up career, he also writes about his relationship with his family, and more importantly with his father, and how this changed during his life.  Filled with memorable and some hilarious photos, Born Standing Up is an excellent, short, but very entertaining biography that will make the perfect gift for Christmas.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 21st 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists” by Gregory Curtis (Knopf, 2006)

The Cave Paintersstarstarstar

It was a special day when Gregory Curtis was vacationing in France with his family and entered some famous caves.  When he gazed upon the unique cave paintings for the first time, this book was born.  The Cave Painters is a two-part story: one small part the story of the rise of Cro-Magnon, modern humans, and their painting abilities; the rest the history of those people who first discovered the paintings and how they proved their finds to the world.

In the first chapter, Curtis starts right at the beginning with the first non-ape hominid to evolve and make their way across Africa as a being that would one day be known as human.  He then takes the reader on a journey evolving through different generations of the Homo genus up to Cro-Magnon, better known as Homo sapiens.  Curtis also discusses the merits of whether the Neanderthals were “wiped out” by the arrival of Cro-Magnon, leaning more towards no, since the population numbers that are being discussed here are in little more than the thousands.  These two different groups of people would rarely have had any contact with each other at all.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Curtis has gone all out with the research, making sure that it is clear and up to date, and to put forth multiple ideas that are currently supported, and not just the one he supports.

While the reader is left wanting much more in this area, this is sadly where Curtis essentially leaves it, now taking up the history of those special people who discovered the cave paintings of Western Europe.  Though in some ways this is just as moving and tumultuous a story as that of the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  These people, for the most part French since the largest number of caves with paintings are located in France, have their story told starting in the nineteenth century.  Some were shunned and mocked and even had their careers ruined by others when they told the world of these cave paintings that were over ten thousand years old.  Curtis takes the research right up to the present day with what is currently being done with the cave paintings; how probably the most famous caves at Lascaux have been recreated in a separate building due to the  deterioration of the paintings by the large number of visitors.

The Cave Painters is an incredible story where the reader first learns a detailed evolutionary history of humanity, and then a detailed biographical history of the famous discoveries of specific cave paintings throughout Europe.  Recently released in paperback, the book features numerous copies and illustrations of the cave paintings to aid Curtis’s discussion, as well as a selection of colored plates.  It is a short book that will educate the reader greatly.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 20th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Notes From the Holocene: A Brief History of the Future” by Dorion Sagan (Chelsea Green Publishingm, 2007)

Notes From the Holocenestarstar

Dorion Sagan, son of the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, attempts to outline our possible future in his latest book now in paperback, Notes From the Holocene.  Sagan uses every informational tool possible, not just drawing from the sciences of physics and evolutionary biology, but also from “science fiction, knowledge of magic tricks, and even a little metaphysics to speculate on basics questions of who and what we are in relationship to the Earth and the universe.”  It is a book that at times seems almost silly in its thoughts, drawing from ideas that are certainly not facts, and yet when viewed as a whole is comprehensive of the way things are and what they might turn out to be.  As humans, we are always asking the “Why are we here?” question, sometimes with our own answers in mind.  Notes From the Holocene is Dorion Sagan’s answer to this question and many more.

The book is split into four distinct parts: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.  Each section goes into immense detail about these specific components, educating the reader greatly in these areas, but at the same time, Sagan ties each part significantly to the overall idea of the book.  The afterword, “Twelve Mysteries,” does an excellent job of quickly summing up his answers to the questions posed throughout the book.  The twelve questions are:

Why does life exist?
Why do we drink water?
Can we save the earth from global warming?
Are human beings central and special?
Is it possible that we’ve arisen by pure chance?
Is the Earth an organism?
Are we part of its exobrain?
If Earth is alive, can it reproduce?
Can the universe?
What does the future hold in store for us?
Does God exist?
What is the nature of human reality?

Whether you’re an absolute scientist, a fundamentalist, or one who believes in reading the future in tea leaves, there is something for everyone in this book.  The key is that Sagan is open minded and non-judgmental in every regard, saying that nothing is right or wrong, for nothing is certain, but here are all the possibilities.  Notes From the Holocene is a book that may not have your answer to life’s questions, but it may get you thinking more about these questions, and start you on a journey with a destination where you will have your own satisfactory answers to these great questions.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 12th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (3.0 edition)” by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)

The World is Flatstarstarstarstar

Thomas Friedman is a well known columnist for the New York Times and the person to turn to for answers about this country’s economy and where it’s headed.  The premiere hardcover edition of  The World is Flat hit the bookshelves in April of 2006, and in that time it has gone through a second edition in hardcover, and finally a third edition in both paperback and hardcover.  Friedman’s excuse for updating is that the world is constantly changing, necessitating further chapters in his book.  One wonders if there may be a “Release 4.0” in the paperback; only time and our ever-changing present will tell.  Nevertheless, The World is Flat is a truly unique book, whether it be for a student of economics, or a person looking for answers to why outsourcing is getting so out of control.

Friedman begins with an introduction to how he discovered that the world had become flat; noticing details here and there in his travels around the world, and then putting it all together.  He then leads into his ten forces that flattened the world, explaining how they came to be, what effect they had on the “flattening” of the world, and how some are continuing to do so.  These include two important dates: 11/9/89, which was when the Berlin Wall came down and eastern Europe and Russia joined the rest of the world once again; and 8/9/95 when Netscape first released its browser to computer owners, allowing them to surf this new thing called the Internet.  Friedman hits every important step in the way business has changed in the last three decades: from Wal-Mart’s ingenuity in supply-chaining, leading to the incredible system whereby a product is purchased at a Wal-Mart store sending a message to the supplier which immediately starts making another copy of that product; to software development in its original free form with LINUX; to the light speed development of sites like MySpace, Facebook, and online blogs where everyone has a voice; to the existence of large buildings in places like Bangalore, India, housing thousands of customer service representatives helping American customers thousands of miles away with anything from credit card bills to cellphone technical questions.

With these ten factors serving as a basis for how and why the world has become flattened, Friedman takes the reader on a trip around the world, elucidating exactly why when we call for help now, the chances of getting a person with an accent who’s native language isn’t English are incredibly high.  But isn’t this what America is all about?  Perhaps not, when the person you are talking to is on the other side of the world, and that this is somehow cheaper and better for the company you are calling that using an American citizen who could be just a few miles away.  While Friedman does have some answers, it is clear that America and the world is at a turning point, much like the beginning of the twentieth century when there was the roaring beast of industrialization, and the explosion of the assembly-line system of the Model T Ford.  One can certainly expect more from Friedman in the coming years, as new and inconceivable changes happen before our very eyes.  For now, The World is Flat is the only guidebook we have, and it does its job to a T.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, The Epic Battle For the Americas, And the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaw’s Bloody Reign” by Stephen Talty (Crown, 2007)

Empire of Blue Waterstarstarstar

Take a journey back to the dawn of the age of piracy in the Caribbean, in the mid-seventeenth century.  England — having just overcome years of civil war after Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell has finally died, Charles II becoming king — is at war with Spain.  On the other side of the Atlantic, in the Caribbean controlled by Spain, England has begun taking settlements: first Barbados and now Jamaica.  Captain Morgan arrives with men and ships and as a privateer has carte blanche to seize Spanish ships in the name of the English crown, and so begins Empire of Blue Water.

It is during this time that the term privateer and the term pirate become blurred together.  The clear difference is that a privateer must donate a portion of all that he seizes to the crown of his nation, while a pirate keeps it all for himself and his crew.  Naturally, when you’re many thousands of miles away from the country you are privateering for, it is easier to just keep it all for yourself and not have anyone know about it.

Captain Morgan takes this dangerous road, living on the island of Jamaica in the pirate capital of Port Royal.  The pirate’s life can be a treacherous one, but it can also be a lucrative one – whether you’re a captain or a lowly seaman.  With a fully-crewed ship, the pirate captain can spend as long as he wants cruising the Caribbean waters, taking ships, keeping them and making them part of the fleet, or taking all of worth from them and then abandoning them.  Some of the crew may be forced to become pirates, especially when they have valuable skills on a ship: surgeons or doctors of any kind, cooks and sail makers, for example.  A pirate ship is a very democratic place: during battle the captain has final say and commands everyone, but otherwise all decisions are made by the crew as a whole.  The amount of pay they receive depends on their services, starting with the captain getting the highest, and then going down to officers and the ranks below; again skilled seaman will receive a better share, especially surgeons who are invaluable on a pirate ship.  Pirates also received excellent compensation if they suffer an accident during battle or on their voyage: a loss of a limb warrants a specific stipend which will increase depending on how important that limb is, such as an arm or leg; if more than one limb is lost, the reward is even greater.

From this viewpoint, a life of piracy seems almost acceptable as a position at that time, of course there were many pirates in the seventeenth about which little is known or remembered, simply because they lost the battle, lost the ship, and died.  Many lives were lost during this time as ships filled the Caribbean waters looking for plunder, while dead bodies filled the seas.

The pirates would decide when they had enough plunder, constantly working out their share, and would return to Port Royal, where they would proceed to spend everything they had earned as fast as possible on drink and women, spending anywhere from six months to over a year doing this, depending on how long they could make their money last.  Captain Morgan was a little more careful with his earnings, buying a piece of land on Jamaica and then living there with his family until the money ran low, and then he would take to the seas again with a new crew, a new ship, and plenty of Spanish ships to be taken.

Stephan Talty does an excellent job of revealing the life of Captain Henry Morgan, going into detail on his major raids on Granada, Portobelo, Maracaibo, and finally Panama.  This last battle saw the pirates taking to the land in an unusual attack that nearly resulted in them dying of thirst and starvation.  Naturally, as all good things must come to pass, this is true even more so for a pirate whose life can end at any moment on the high seas.  For Captain Morgan, it was the arm of the British crown knowing of his piratical efforts, stretching across the Atlantic and bringing him to trial.  But when everything was revealed, Morgan was knighted and eventually returned to Jamaica as governor, yet was never the same man again and in 1688 died of dropsy.  In 1692, a devastating earthquake and then a succession of tidal waves struck Port Royal, essentially obliterating the pirate capital.  Port Royal was eventually rebuilt, but never became as great a pirate town as it once was.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on August 17th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere” by Gabrielle Walker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)

An Ocean of Airstarstarstarstar

Each and every day the people of the world go about their daily activities: going to school, going to work, going to help someone; all with little idea of the great ocean of air above them that has trillions of molecules constantly performing crucial reactions – much like the population below – with the aim of keeping this planet (and its people) healthy and alive.  An Ocean of Air by Gabrielle Walker is an excellent 235 page book that teaches you everything you could ever want to know about our atmosphere, its many layers, and the very air we are constantly breathing.  Part science book, part history book; An Ocean of Air provides a whole semester’s worth of knowledge and learning in just a single volume.

Walker is an award-winning scientist with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Cambridge University.  As well as having served as climate-change editor for Nature and features editor for New Scientist, she is a visiting professor at Princeton University and has presented many programs for BBC Radio.  In An Ocean of Air, she breaks down the atmosphere into its components, explaining each in detail and in clear layman’s language, making it easy to understand for any reader.  Along with the science, she also goes into the history of when this air molecule or atmospheric layer was discovered, how and by whom.  Apart from learning the makeup of our atmosphere, the reader is also learning of great scientists and inventors of the past who were able to discover so much about something that is essentially invisible.

The book is split into two parts.  The first part, “Comfort Blanket,” explains what the air we breath consists of; the fascinating evolution of oxygen and why we cannot live without it, but at the same time it leads to our inevitable deaths; and how wind is formed and develops into the fierce and destructive hurricanes and tornadoes around the world.  The second part, “Sheltering Sky,” is where Walker explains the various levels of our atmosphere, their history and discovery, from stratosphere to ionosphere – which is constantly being bombarded with radiation from the sun, but causes a reaction that protects the complex life below.  It is here that Walker launches into the crux of the book, explaining the history of global warming from the invention of CFCs and the depletion of the ozone layer, to our present which is just beginning to look towards and understand the possibility of a doomed future.

Just as anyone can be amazed at the complexity of the human body and how it keeps living and moving with the millions of different processes and reactions taking place constantly, our atmosphere is seemingly just as complex and in some ways fragile.  Walker keenly points out that while carbon dioxide levels have spiked in Earth’s history, they are now at a level never recorded before, and continuously increasing.  Her intent is to inform and educate readers on what is happening to the atmosphere, and therefore the world, and with a further reading section, one can learn how to do their little bit to help this ailing planet.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Letters to eBay: Hilarious Auctions, Crazy Emails, and Bongos For Grandma” by Art Farkas (Grand Central, 2007)

Letters to eBaystarstar

In the vein of the Darwin Awards, Bad Cat, and the Book of Bunny Suicides, Letters to eBay is not a deep and contemplative book that offers reason and thought on the meaning of life.  It is a book about unusual and strange auctions that have been posted on eBay and one man’s alter ego responding to them.  The result is the perfect book to have lying around one’s home, on a coffee table next to the New Yorker, or to take on a trip with you, as I did: a hilarious and entertaining read that you can just pick up and turn to any page.

Art Farkas is not a real person, as you have possibly guessed.  The real author behind this book created the pseudonym and fake character one night in August of 2005, when he decided to check out some auctions on eBay.  As he looked through friends’ auctions, as well as just generally searching others, an alter ego began to develop who would question and challenge and befuddle the claims made by people on their auctions.  The result was Art Farkas, “America’s top cyber-prankster.”  Here are some examples:

An auction was listed for a large decorative bird cage, and at the bottom it made the promise to be “worry free.”  Farkas seizes on this, contacting the auctioneer with a question about whether this will cure his constant worrying of everything: “I worry about simple and great things of the world including whether sippy cups are really safe, the GNP of Hungary, and the number 72.”  The result is the amusing response from the auctioneer who explains in sincerity that the bird cage will not cure Farkas’ problem.

An unusual collector of vintage traps lists a “Large Lucien Legeard trap.”  The auctioneer explains that while these traps were made illegal in 1904, they are still excellent collector’s pieces.  Farkas contacts the auctioneer, setting up a story that he and a group of older men engage in a live-action game like the Fugitive, where they are all chasing one man.  His question is whether the trap would work well to catch a man and how good of a job it will do.  Farkas receives this amusing response that the trap would not work well and that any person could easily break free of it.  “The British did have a man trap with double springs and plain jaws.  But when these come up for auction they are terrible expensive because of their rarity.”  As is the problem with all written Internet communication, one is never sure of the meaning and emotion behind a comment, e-mail, or letter.  In this case, the auctioneer may well think this story is true, which is just bizarre; or they may see the prank that Farkas is playing on them, choosing to play along.

The result is a collection of responses from people who had pranks played on them and the question is whether they fall for it or not.  As the more one reads of the book, the more one feels like after they read the Book of Bunny Suicides; it is an unsettled feeling in their gut, as they know that this just feels wrong.  Nevertheless, it really depends on the type of person reading the book.  Some who read Letters to eBay will, like me, feel that a lot of innocent people are being conned and tricked; while others will just be LOL (laughing out loud).  Ultimately, this book has a little something for everyone.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring” by Richard Preston (Random House, 2007)

Wild Treesstarstarstar

Wild Trees is a big departure from Richard Preston’s usual nonfiction works of deadly diseases, but it is just as unusual and unique.   This is a story of the giant redwoods of California and the crazy people whose passion it is to climb them.  It is a story of daring adventure, but also of a humanity that holds great respect for some of the Earth’s dwindling survivors.

Wild Trees begins by revealing its real life characters who mean very little to the reader at first, to the point where the reader is wondering where it’s all going, but as the book progresses, each of these characters – their life stories revealed – come together because of their discovered love for the redwoods and their passion and what some might call obsession to climb them.  There is Steve Sillett, a botanist who discovered his passion for the gentle giants when challenged to climb one of them.  Michael Taylor, son of a wealthy real estate developer, never amounting to anything until the day he decides to find the world’s tallest redwood.  Finally there is the Canadian botanist Marie Antoine whose mother died when she was young, and from a young age was obsessed with trees and climbing them.  These three are brought together from their seemingly doomed and turbulent lives to a place of escape and rest in the Humboldt and Mendocino counties of California.  Perfecting the art of climbing, they are three of the few who have discovered most of the great redwoods that have come to be known today.

Preston himself has an obsession with redwoods and climbing them, which becomes part of the book, as he travels with these three, climbing trees, but not always giving specific locations.  This is a group that is fully aware of the dwindling number of redwoods that can be thousands of years old, and wish to see them remain hidden and protected.  A “wild tree” is one that has never been climbed and Preston is clear that for some trees he wishes this to remain so.  It is an interesting execution with Wild Trees, for while he wishes to enamor and amaze the reader with these majestic creations that have stood the test of time, he wishes to maintain this hidden Eden in a way that prevents it from being seen and experience by the readers.  Nevertheless, the book is an interesting introspective into these mighty trees about which little is known, most importantly their history and existence, which Preston does not hold back on.

A delight with the audiobook is that it is read by the author, Richard Preston, adding all the more to the tone and emotional resonance of the book.  His voice is clear and strong, keeping the reader’s interest from start until finish.  There is even a section where Steve Sillett and Marie Antoine each talk about their love for the redwoods and how important it is that we maintain them.  The audiobook begins and ends with the a chorus of chirruping birds, as the reader imagines the reddish brown thick trunks reaching from the fertile earth to the cloudy heavens.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.