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Wild WNY / Science books for the holidays


Once again, there is an excellent new crop of natural history books out this year. Among them, I found the following seven of particular interest and perfect to share as holiday gifts.


The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan, Norton

None of us should take our defining resource, the Great Lakes, for granted; unfortunately most of us do exactly that. For that reason, I wish I could require everyone in the Great Lakes basin to read this deeply researched book about the problems those lakes and, therefore, Great Lakes-area residents face today. I’m aware of many of the problems Egan addresses, but have a much deeper understanding of them after reading his book. Those problems include the mussel infestation, the threat of Asian carp entering Lake Michigan from the adjacent Mississippi drainage, the toxic algae that each year infest western Lake Erie and may expand east to our area, the continuing desire to export water from the basin to address drought in other regions, and the rise and fall of lake levels at least partly caused by climate change. In a final chapter, Egan offers a course of action to address these and other problems. We should read this book and heed his advice.



The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us about Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future 

Jim Robbins, Spiegel & Grau

Jim Robbins visited Buffalo a few months ago to talk about this book, and his presentation led me to purchase a copy. I have been well served by that purchase. The book’s content is a series of essays about many enthralling topics, including opposing views about how birds evolved from dinosaurs; the design of bird flocks; the unique characteristics of bird feathers, eggs, and even guano; how bird brains compare with ours; how they communicate; and how they are useful to us. For example, from a  section titled The Gifts of Birds: “The color blue in the feathers of bluebirds and peacocks and the ‘flying jewels’ look of the hummingbird are made by an unusual natural technology—two-dimensional crystal cells that form the way beer foam does and reflect a prism-like light back to the viewer. The technique is being used to create a car paint that seems to glow, and some researchers think a similar process could be used to create a new type of self-assembling laser.”



Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies 

Geoffrey West, Princeton

This book is a perfect example of a specialist in one discipline (in this case, physics) poking his nose into other disciplines (biology, medicine, geography, and economics) and providing instructive and often unexpected insights into those disciplines. Although this is a very serious book, it is so well written and so replete with interesting examples that readers can assimilate significant concepts with pleasure.


Consider just one of West’s examples. This one addresses what he calls linear thinking. Staff at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City determined that Tusko the elephant needed to be treated with LSD and West tells us: “Tusko weighed about 3,000 kilograms, so using the number known to be safe for cats, they estimated that a safe and appropriate dose for Tusko would be 0.1 milligram per kilogram multiplied by 3,000 kilograms, which comes out to 300 milligrams. The amount they actually injected was 297 milligrams. Recall that a good hit of LSD for you or me is a quarter milligram. The results on Tusko were dramatic and catastrophic. To quote directly from their paper, ‘Five minutes after the injection he trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated, and went into status epilepticus.’ Poor old Tusko died an hour and forty minutes later.” Using West’s proposed scaling methods, an appropriate dose for this animal would have been a few milligrams and he concludes, “Had this been done, Tusko would no doubt have lived and a vastly different conclusion about the effects of LSD would have been drawn.”


Ever since I first came across D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form over seventy years ago, that has been my favorite book about scaling, but I consider West’s Scale to be even better. It should be required reading for anyone associated with or interested in the many fields on which it touches.



Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Birding Year in the World 

Noah Strycker, HMH

For many bird watchers today, avocation has become competitive sport. How many species can they see in a day, month, or year? How many birds can they identify in their backyard, county, state, nation, or even the world? This leads some birders to that subtitle word, obsession. I struggle each year to find 200 species of birds, and friends who travel more widely rarely reach 400 species. Birding without Borders is a book about a young man who found 6,042 species in the single year 2015. In doing so, he beat the old record by 1701 species. To accomplish this, Strycker, a thirty-one-year old Birding associate editor, visited all seven continents and forty-one countries.


Writing about such an accomplishment could produce a long boring species list. On the first day I saw X, on the second day I saw X, and so on until on the 365th day I saw X. Fortunately for the reader, Strycker is a far better writer than that. Yes, those numbers linger in the background, but his book is about an adventure that posed all kinds of problems: finding appropriate transportation (everything from one of those Zodiak boats in Antarctica to a mountain van in the Andes of South America); locating and communicating with local guides, many of whom didn’t even speak a language he understood; and, of course, finding the birds once he was in the right spot.


It turns out that Strycker was not the only one so obsessed. Last year a Danish birder, Arjan Dwarshuis, aided in part by Strycker’s suggestions, surpassed Strycker’s total with a new record, 6,833. The total number of bird species in the world is about 10,000, so there is room for still greater totals. In no way, however, does Dwarshuis’ accomplishment or that upper limit take away from the charm of Birding Without Borders.



A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America, 2nd edition

Jeffrey Glassberg, Princeton

I have regularly used the eastern edition of Glassberg’s Butterflies through Binoculars for identification of these beautiful insects in the field. This book includes all the information provided by BtB into a compact format. Consider, for example, what it offers in a half page about our familiar cabbage white butterfly: five identification photos, help to separate it from similar species, mustard as its common food plant, a map showing that it has three annual broods throughout the United States, information about where to find it, and a note about its introduction from Europe in the 1860s. There is a problem with using this book as a field guide, however. Its geographic coverage makes it heavy to carry in the field, and I will therefore continue to use BtB but will carry it in the car for reference details.



A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic 

Peter Wadhams, Oxford

In an earlier column about global warming, I quoted extensively from this book, so I will limit what I have to say about it here. Suffice it to say that I consider it the most valuable resource available about current changes in the far north, and that I consider his projections deeply threatening. Wadhams has the credentials to make us listen: having studied ice in the Arctic for almost fifty years, he is today professor of ocean physics and head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University.



Fooled Ya!: How Your Brain Gets Tricked by Optical Illusions, Magicians, Hoaxes & More 

Jordan Brown, MoonDance

I conclude with a book that a parent can give to a young son or daughter and then, with younger children especially, share the pleasure of reading it together. Brown has written many books that communicate science to children, and here he turns his attention to how science can be abused to manipulate us. This book should serve youngsters by preparing them to consider today’s world of antiscience and fake news.    


Naturalist Gerry Rising is the author of Birds and Bird Watching.


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