Summer Books


(This 1265th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 21, 2015.)


As always I submit my recommended books for summer reading as a very personal list. Some make for light reading; others are far more demanding but provide important scientific insights; still others are valuable mainly for reference.


I begin with a must-read for everyone who enjoys hummingbirds. (Is there anyone who does not fit that category?) Terry Masear is a hummingbird rehabilitator who takes in these tiny injured birds and treats them with great care. Her book, Fastest Things on Wings, tells about her experiences winning - and occasionally losing - her battles to bring her charges back to health. Although Masear lives in Hollywood and deals with west coast birds, her stories apply equally to the one species, the ruby-throated hummingbird, we have here. I learned much from this book. For example, I used to wonder why hummingbirds didn't eat those ants that get into the sugar-water of their feeders. Although they regularly eat small soft-bodied insects and spiders, they do not eat ants because the ants' tough exoskeletons would clog the birds' tiny throats.


Medical researcher Edzard Ernst spent most of his career stepping on toes. He first exposed the complicity of the German medical profession in the Nazi genocide. Then he accepted appointment as the world's first chair of alternative medicine at England's University of Exeter. There he studied systematically the claims of the proponents of complementary medicine, a field dominated by evangelic and enthusiastic promoters, including Prince Charles. Needless to say, they did not take kindly to his exposures of many of their widely-accepted therapies. His book, A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for the Truth and Finding Trouble, is a charming account of a committed life.


No, Beth Shapiro does not tell us how to create a Jurassic Park in her How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. In fact, her book exposes the fallacies in our thinking about such activities as well as the real possibilities and even potential values of restoring some extinct species. This is not a silly book; rather, it is a serious story well told and a fun read.


Two biographies I enjoyed reading this spring are about very different people. Jared Orsi's Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike tells about this contemporary of Lewis and Clark whose expeditions through our west were equally exciting. It is amazing how much this explorer accomplished before he died as a brigadier general in a successful attack on Toronto in the War of 1812. He was only 34. The other, James Connor's Kepler's Witch is an opposite take on this important scientist's life from Heavenly Intrigue, which implicated Kepler in the death of his sponsor, Tycho Brahe. Here the central focus is on Kepler's defense of his difficult mother from accusations of witchcraft.


Once again Bernd Heinrich brings his deep knowledge gained in the field to bear on a serious problem. In The Homing Instinct: Meaning & Mystery in Animal Migration, he addresses seminal questions with deep insights that connect birds, bees and even botany through his usual authenticity. No one has final answers about these urges that drive the world but Heinrich comes close.


Jorge Taillant's Glaciers: The Politics of Ice alternates between scientific information about these rivers of ice with how legislation to protect them has evolved. Why protect glaciers? They represent important water sources.


The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health tells how authors David R. Montgomery and Anne Bikle began to explore how microbes contributed to the health of their garden soil but, when Bilke was diagnosed with cancer, they extended their study to the human microbiome, the microbes that influence our own health. Written in clear and accessible prose, their book has important messages for research scientists, physicians and the rest of us as well.


A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life by Bill Mesler and James Cleaves is an interesting history of the basic human concern for how life was (and possibly still is) first created.


And finally, three guides the reflect our ever increasing specialization: Vladimir Dinet's Field Guide to Finding Mammals, Kevin Karlson & Dale Rosseler's Birding by Impression, and Leslie Day's Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.-- Gerry Rising.