Summer Reading


(This 899th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 15, 2008.)


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Once again vacations lie ahead. Here are brief commentaries about some of the many new science books to consider reading this summer.


Of all the natural history books I have read recently, I consider Bruce Barcott's The Last Flight of the Scarlett Macaw (Random House) the very best. It is an exciting story, well told, about an environmental battle by a remarkable young woman to save a rare species in the tiny Central American country of Belize. The eccentric heroine, Sharon Matola, is a former circus lion-tamer and Air Force survival specialist, who hopped freights for fun and once reentered the United States by swimming across the Rio Grande carrying her pet monkey on her head. She is now a Belize zoo-keeper with a pet three-legged jaguar. The story of her battle against corporations and bureaucrats carries messages for us all.


Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (California) is a classic now updated to include recent discoveries about these near-mythical beasts that roamed our countryside through a series of Ice Ages but could not withstand the hunting pressure of newly arrived humans. As a youngster I would have been absorbed by this beautifully illustrated book; remarkably, I found myself equally interested today and spent hours studying this intriguing account.


Speaking of kids, the Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by Bill Thompson III (Houghton Mifflin) is designed for beginning bird watchers. I wish I had a copy of this book when I was an eleven year old first caught up by this passion. Written in consultation with his daughter's fifth grade class and appropriate for children aged eight to twelve, Thompson has chosen 200 species to describe. Each is illustrated by a photograph and a line drawing by the author's wife, Julie Zickefoose. In addition to identification suggestions, each species includes a delightful "Wow" comment.


When I was twelve years old myself, I came across what was until recently the most exciting bird book I have ever read, Hawks in the Hand by the Craighead brothers. Upon reading that book I wanted very much to become a falconer, a goal I never did achieve. A revised version of the Craighead book is now available but a new book matches its excitement. It is Tim Gallagher's Falcon Fever (Houghton Mifflin), an autobiographical account of the author's lifetime adventures in falconry. This is an avocation that requires of its participants excellent personal conditioning, deep knowledge about raptors and absolute devotion to them. Clearly Gallagher not only shares those qualities but is a fine writer as well.


When I was a college English major, I took a course with a number of science majors. I was surprised and chagrinned by how much better their writing was than that of the rest of us. My observation is confirmed by Richard Dawkins' The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, a splendid collection of brief excerpts from the writing of scientists, among them Crick, Einstein, Feynman, Gamow, Gould, Pinker, Turing and Wilson.


George and Roberta Poinar have written before about ancient insects trapped in amber. Now in What Bugged the Dinosaurs? (Princeton) they raise the possibility that the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary of 65.5 million years ago that marked the end of the dinosaurs was not caused solely by the Chicxulub meteor impact. Their fossilized insects provide evidence for other causes including pathogens like leishmaniasis and malaria as well as insects like blackflies. The book's serious science is interweaved with interesting descriptions of possible dinosaur-bug episodes.


Briefly noted but important: Mary and John Gribben, Flower Hunters (Oxford): the adventures of a dozen 17th and 18th century botanist-explorers. David Attenborough, Life in Cold Blood (BBC): the last (?) of the author's delightful TV world tours visits reptiles and amphibians. Gilbert Waldbauer, A Walk around the Pond (Harvard) encourages a closer look at the rich life in nearby waters. Randall Packard, The Making of a Tropical Disease (Johns Hopkins): a must read for anyone interested in malaria. Mike Hansell, Built by Animals (Oxford): about animal architecture. William Loomis, Life as It Is (California) clearly addresses current controversial biological issues like human origins. Peter Atkins, Four Laws that Drive the Universe (Oxford) carefully summarizes the fundamentals of thermodynamics.-- Gerry Rising