Tag Archives: Books

Discovering The Mammoth: The Evolution Of Modern Scientific Thinking

It wasn’t a mammoth, it was a mastodon. But it was still a big hairy elephant featured at the climax-end of the main exhibit hall in the New York State museum. And it was an exhibit to end all exhibits. The New York State Museum, during its heyday, was world class, and the hall of evolution, which seemed old enough to have involved Darwin himself as a consultant, featured the reconstructed skeleton as well as a fur-covered version, of the creature discovered in a kettle only a few miles away. That exhibit, along with a dozen other spectacular exhibits that to my knowledge have not been equaled elsewhere or since, are the reason I became a scientist, and probably helped direct me towards the study of prehistory and archaeology.

It is because of that background to my own thinking that I paid a lot of attention over the years to elephants and elephant evolution. I got to help excavate an African four-tusker one year even though I had to push off my other responsibilities to do so. I’ve studied the pseudo archaeological traces left behind by wild forest elephants in the Congo, and now and then, ate one, which may seem strange but I was living among the Pygmy elephant hunters at the time so it seemed like the thing to do.

Several years ago, I came across John McKay. First, his blog, then I met him in person. He had been writing about Pleistocene megafauna but focusing on mammoths. Over our many years of friendship, I watched as he steadily worked on a book putting together his findings, and finally, Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science has been completed and is out and in print now!

I liken the discovery of the Mammoth by western science to the mostly lost to history but critical coral reef debate involving Darwin. Both events shaped how we do science today and at the same time revealed mind-changing features of the natural world. I didn’t know until interviewing John on Ikonokast (check out the podcast!) that he had originally become interested in Mammoth by a somewhat indirect route because of the extinct animal’s role in, let us say, alt-theories about the Earth and its history. But regardless of how John became interested, he discovered a complex and almost inexplicable relationship between what people were thinking, the way they arrived at those thoughts, and reality which led to a centuries-long struggle to understand something that to us, today, is fairly simple but to 19th century scholars was outrageous.

Religion and cultural belief prohibited thinking about extinctions or the evolution of one species into another, while at the same time, these bodies of thought and knowledge provided explanations for ancient mammal remains that were, to our minds today, seemingly unbelievable. It was the process of going from being totally wrong and basing conclusions on a combination of bad information and unsupportable logic, to the state of understanding that mammoths are a different species of elephant that once existed where we find their remains, but that went extinct because of major changes in their habitats and possibly other causes.

And that is only part of the central story John brings to the reader in the engagingly written and carefully researched Discovering the Mammoth.

I tend to divide science books into two categories: those written by writers about science, and those written by scientists. Both categories have their duds and their great books, though the former category almost always lacks a certain depth and breath but often in a way the typical interested reader can’t see. Meanwhile, books in the latter category can easily go off the rails or assume too much, and be a burden to read. John McKay’s book is written by an expert on the field (this book is in lieu of his PhD thesis) who had previously spent years developing his craft of explaining scientific things, so it is well done in that regard. But there is another reason the typical reader of this blog will grok McKay’s Mammoths. John’s passion other than dead woolly elephants is falsehoods. This is an interest we share. John McKay is a Snope of science, especially in certain areas, but better. Unlike Snopes, which is content to find enough chinks in the armor of some myth or another to snarkily discard it, McKay often recognizes the ways in which a falsehood informs, and contains non-trivial truth, while various truths can misinform while at the same time containing insidious or at least interesting falsehoods. It is his thinking about the way people get things wrong, combined with scholarly training in various areas of literature and history, that uniquely allow him to tell this particular important story about the the evolution of modern scientific thought.

I highly recommend Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Also, consider it as a holiday gift for your favorite smart person, so they can get even smarter.

Shooting At The Queen, Torchwood, AI: Cheap Books

In Tooth and Claw, Season 2 Episode 2 of Doctor Who 2.0, we see the formation of The Torchwood Institute and the banishing of The Doctor (and Rose) from the United Kingdom. Fat lot that does. Anyway, we also see Queen Victoria make mention of the multiple attempts at her assassination. I suppose it is understandable that some eight or nine (nine if you count the werewolf) attempts were made on her life. She was a women in charge of men in the most patriarchal culture ever (the White West generally, not just UK). They also said “Lock her up!” All the time, and there was a never ending investigation of her use of postage stamps, which by the way she freakin’ invented.

Anyway, I’ve been rewatching the new series, and saw that episode just today. I did not know about all those attempts on Her Majesty’s person, but by the way the fact was written into the script in DWS2E2, I suspected it was for real. So I looked it up. And, I cam across a book on it that was marked down to two bucks in Kindle form!

Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy

During Queen Victoria’s sixty-four years on the British throne, no fewer than eight attempts were made on her life. Seven teenage boys and one man attempted to kill her. Far from letting it inhibit her reign over the empire, Victoria used the notoriety of the attacks to her advantage. Regardless of the traitorous motives—delusions of grandeur, revenge, paranoia, petty grievances, or a preference of prison to the streets—they were a golden opportunity for the queen to revitalize the British crown, strengthen the monarchy, push through favored acts of legislation, and prove her pluck in the face of newfound public support. “It is worth being shot at,” she said, “to see how much one is loved.”

Recounting what Elizabeth Barrett marveled at as “this strange mania of queen-shooting,” and the punishments, unprecedented trials, and fate of these malcontents who were more pitiable than dangerous, Paul Thomas Murphy explores the realities of life in nineteenth-century England—for both the privileged and the impoverished. From these cloak-and-dagger plots of “regicide” to Victoria’s steadfast courage, Shooting Victoria is thrilling, insightful, and, at times, completely mad historical narrative.

For two bucks, we also have Thinking Machines: The Quest for Artificial Intelligence–and Where It’s Taking Us Next by Luke Dormehl.

When most of us think about Artificial Intelligence, our minds go straight to cyborgs, robots, and sci-fi thrillers where machines take over the world. But the truth is that Artificial Intelligence is already among us. It exists in our smartphones, fitness trackers, and refrigerators that tell us when the milk will expire. In some ways, the future people dreamed of at the World’s Fair in the 1960s is already here. We’re teaching our machines how to think like humans, and they’re learning at an incredible rate.

In Thinking Machines, technology journalist Luke Dormehl takes you through the history of AI and how it makes up the foundations of the machines that think for us today. Furthermore, Dormehl speculates on the incredible–and possibly terrifying–future that’s much closer than many would imagine. This remarkable book will invite you to marvel at what now seems commonplace and to dream about a future in which the scope of humanity may need to broaden itself to include intelligent machines.

Bill Nye Book, Others, Cheap

Bill Nye’s Everything All at Once: How to unleash your inner nerd, tap into radical curiosity, and solve any problem on Kindle is available for 2.99.

Everyone has an inner nerd just waiting to be awakened by the right passion. In Everything All at Once, Bill Nye will help you find yours. With his call to arms, he wants you to examine every detail of the most difficult problems that look unsolvable–that is, until you find the solution. Bill shows you how to develop critical thinking skills and create change, using his “everything all at once” approach that leaves no stone unturned.

Whether addressing climate change, the future of our society as a whole, or personal success, or stripping away the mystery of fire walking, there are certain strategies that get results: looking at the world with relentless curiosity, being driven by a desire for a better future, and being willing to take the actions needed to make change happen. He shares how he came to create this approach–starting with his Boy Scout training (it turns out that a practical understanding of science and engineering is immensely helpful in a capsizing canoe) and moving through the lessons he learned as a full-time engineer at Boeing, a stand-up comedian, CEO of The Planetary Society, and, of course, as Bill Nye The Science Guy.

This is the story of how Bill Nye became Bill Nye and how he became a champion of change and an advocate of science. It’s how he became The Science Guy. Bill teaches us that we have the power to make real change. Join him in dare we say it changing the world.

I’m not endorsing the following book because I don’t know much about it, and I’m not that big on behavioral economics or listening to them. Too risky. But, I thought some of you might want to know because it is cheap. Thus, being misinformed is not as bad if you pay less for it!

But seriously, this might be a great book, I really don’t know. Have a look: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves.

I’ve always been interested in canals, and I’m actually one of the few archaeologists in North America who has worked on them. They tend to contain either very little else but water, or a lot of trash (depending on if they are in use or not) and always contain very interesting fish.

Anyway, Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation is about the builiding of the Erie Canal and the meaaning of that event. I’m looking forward to reading this, and it is only $1.99!

Fantastic Mathematics Wall Calendar For 2018

I love the The Mathematics Calendar 2018.

Math Calendar sample days
It has an equation or other statement about math for every day, often linked to that day (like, the January 13th entry is “the sixth prime number”). Some entries are little mat quizzes for you to fugue out. Some are funny jokes, like the entry for Thanksgiving (any guesses as to what that might be? Hint: It is a formula.) The level of difficulty of understanding the reference or solving the problem ranges from suitable for a smart 7 year old (Huxley has figured some out) up through college level. Also, the picture that go with each moth are totally cool and, of course, mathy.

The calendar is complied by Rebecca Rapoport, of Harvard. She is also the author of Math Lab for Kids, which is not a dog, but a book, that looks good but that I’ve not seen.

I’m tagging this post with the keyterm “holiday shopping” to hopefully remind me to remind you that this is a great holiday gift for that special math nerd or math teacher in your life.

CheMystery is a graphic novel

CheMystery authored by C. Al Preece is a graphic superhero novel, drawn by Josh Reynolds, that teaches — wait for it — Chemistry!

A radiation accident transforms two youngsters into superheros, and simultaneously creates an evil villain for them to fight. The graphic novel covers that story and is indurated with frequent cleverly placed molecule size chemistry lessons.

Teachers need to know that this book complies with Next Gen science standards and is very classroom friendly. Indeed, author Preece is a chemistry and physical science teacher (and a trained chemist).

It is a great read, an engaging story, and the lessons are informative and easy on the eyes. I recommend it for the youth in your life who is into science. Teachers should have a look at it!

How to do Statistics Wrong

Telling people that they are doing statistics wrong is a cottage industry that I usually want nothing to do with, for various reasons including the fact that the naysayers are often blindly repeating stuff they heard but do not understand. But, Alex Reinhart, in Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, does not do that, and this is a book that is worth reading for anyone who either generates or needs to interpret statistics.

Most of the 10 chapters that address specific technical problems with statistics, where they are misused or misinterpreted, are very helpful in guiding a reader in how to think about statistics, and certain fallacies or common errors may well apply to a particular person’s work on a regular basis. I’ve put the table of contents below so you can see how this may apply to you. This is a worthy addition to the bookshelf. Get this book and stop doing your stats wrong!

The author is a grad student and physical scientist at Carnegie Mellon.

Here’s the table of contents:

Chapter 1: An Introduction to Statistical Significance
Chapter 2: Statistical Power and Underpowered Statistics
Chapter 3: Pseudoreplication: Choose Your Data Wisely
Chapter 4: The p Value and the Base Rate Fallacy
Chapter 5: Bad Judges of Significance
Chapter 6: Double-Dipping in the Data
Chapter 7: Continuity Errors
Chapter 8: Model Abuse
Chapter 9: Researcher Freedom:Good Vibrations?
Chapter 10: Everybody Makes Mistakes
Chapter 11: Hiding the Data
Chapter 12: What Can Be Done?

The Wildlife of Ecuador

Wildlife of Ecuador: A Photographic Field Guide to Birds, Mammals, Reptiles, and Amphibians by naturalist Andrés Vásquez Noboa, witih photography byablo Cervantes Daza, covers mainland Ecuador (but by “mainland” we also mean ocean mammals). Focusing only on non-piscine verts, you will need to go elsewhere for your inverts and plants and such. But you get the point. This book covers most of what you are looking for when you are out in the wild looking for animals.

This is not a comprehensive guide, but covers the most frequently seen animals, totaling to 350 distributed across over 400 plates.

There is a good chance that if you are an American or European going to Ecuador, you are visiting the Galapagos, in which you will want to check outg Wildlife of the Galápagos: Second Edition. A rather broad gulf of evolutionary change and outlandish biogeography separates Ecuador from its famous island possessions. But there is a good chance that if you are going to teh Galapagos, you are making at lease one nature related stop, so this is the book for you.

This is a well done nicely bound standard field guide of field guide size and format with animal info and excellent photos on the same pages, and organized by taxonomic category (not all field guides are!). You might think a tiny country like Ecuador does not need range maps, but the topography is highly variable with conditions running from lowland moist to alpin-ish and from wet to dry, so there are, indeed, range maps as needed. And, that ecological diversity is explained in the preface material.

I highly recommend this book for travelers to the region.

If you want more ecology and evoluitonary biology with your field guides, check out my review of the Neotropical Companion, here.

Manga Guide to Microprocessors: Excellent tech graphic novel

It has been a long time since I’ve written any machine or assembler code, and it is a rare day that I hand construct a logic circuit using transistors. But it is comforting to know that these skills and the knowledge associated with them still reside in some form or another in the world of microprocessors.

The Manga Guides published by No Starch Press and written by a wide range of authors manga-based graphic novels on diverse topics in science, math, statistics, and technology. I’ve reviewed several here (see this post for a partial list of some of the other guides). And the newest entry to this growing and rather large and excellent library is The Manga Guide to Microprocessors by Michio Shibuya, Takashi Tonagi, and Office Sawa.

This book is really thorough, packing in piles of details about computers, focusing on the microprocessor level technology but covering a lot of related things as well such as memory and data storage and programming, with a whole section on controllers.

But this information is embedded in a story, as is the case with all the Manga guides.

This is the story of Ayumi, a master chess player who is beaten by a computer. She engages with the computer’s programmer, Kano, in a quest to learn all she can about her nemesis.

The book has three modes. One is a standard manga graphics novel sequence of frames with the main story. That is most of the book. The other is a more detailed conversation between iconic versions of the protagonists, in which detail that would be difficult to easily convey in pure cartoon form is gone over. The third is a retrospective or detailed section at the end of each chapter which is lightly illustrated, text heavy, and serves to contextualize the previous material.

I strongly recommend this book.

Here is what the various modes look like:

Most of the book looks like this.

Some of the book looks like this.

Back to School Science and Culture Stuff

I usually write my annual back to school post earlier than this, but I was distracted by various events. There are three themes here.

1) You are a science teacher and I have some stuff for you.

2) You have a student in a school and you want to support the school’s science teacher.

3) You have a student-offspring or elsewise and are looking for a cool back to school gift.

First, for themes 1 and 2, a mixture of traditional back to school blog posts and some items that may be useful and happen to be on sale at the moment so now’s your chance.

My For Teachers Page has posts providing some science content in evolutionary biology (about Natural Selection and some other topics)

On the same page are essays on teaching philosophy, supporting life science teachers, and evolution and creationism in the classroom, including this famous video.

Books that teachers might find helpful. Consider sending your kids in to school with one of them, focusing on evoluton-creationism and climate change-denial:

Classic text on fighting creationism: Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Genie Scott

This book should be on the shelf or in the classroom for every teacher in science, or even social science. It is essentially the highly digestable (and illustration rich) version of the IPCC report on the scientific basis for climate change, written by one of that report’s famous authors: Dire Predictions, 2nd Edition: Understanding Climate Change

Teachers and parents of kids in school are in the trenches in the war on science. So you need to know what the war on science is and how to fight it. So, read Shawn Otto’s book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It

The Manga books on science and math. See this review of Regression Analysis, where you’ll find a list of others. Most recent and hot off the presses is The Manga Guide to Microprocessors

A handful of recent science for various ages (Links are to my reviews):

The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids
Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed: An amazing new book

The Grand Canyon: Monument To An Ancient Earth. Great new book.

And finally, how to not get caught plagiarizing, and what does that pillow that says “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops” really mean? Not what you think!

And now for the fun part, the toys. Amazon is having a huge sale on refurbished devices that you may want to have. I assume they are getting ready for the holidays or something. Go to this link to see what they are

I myself got a Kindle Paperwhite E-reader a while back, and I love it. Then, for her birthday, I got one for Julia. I recommend starting out with the one with “special offers” which are basically ads that are not there when you are reading. The device is cheaper this way, and if the ads really annoy you, you can pay them off to upgrade to the no ad version.

I’m seriously thinking about getting Amanda one of these refurb-Kindle paperwhites. She likes the Kindle just enough for a refurbished one, maybe not enough for a new one…

At the very least, when you meet your teacher at the beginning of the school year, say to them what I say or something like it. “If you ever get hassled by anyone — parent, administration, other teachers — about teaching real science, let me know, I’ll be your best ally. Of course, if you are a science denier or a creationist so the situation is turned around, let me know, I’ll be your worst nightmare …” Then kind of pat them on the shoulder, flip your cape to one side, get on your motorcycle, and drive off.

The Animal Connection

You know of Pat Shipman at the very least because of her recent and, dare I say, highly controversial and excellent book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. If you’ve not read it, do so. But, in the mean time, another book she wrote in the same area, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, is now available on Kindle for two bucks.

Why do humans all over the world take in and nurture other animals? This behavior might seem maladaptive—after all, every mouthful given to another species is one that you cannot eat—but in this heartening new study, acclaimed anthropologist Pat Shipman reveals that our propensity to domesticate and care for other animals is in fact among our species’ greatest strengths. For the last 2.6 million years, Shipman explains, humans who coexisted with animals enjoyed definite adaptive and cultural advantages. To illustrate this point, Shipman gives us a tour of the milestones in human civilization-from agriculture to art and even language—and describes how we reached each stage through our unique relationship with other animals. The Animal Connection reaffirms our love of animals as something both innate and distinctly human, revealing that the process of domestication not only changed animals but had a resounding impact on us as well.

E.O. Wilson’s Anthill

Anthill: A Novel

Winner of the 2010 Heartland Prize, Anthill follows the thrilling adventures of a modern-day Huck Finn, enthralled with the “strange, beautiful, and elegant” world of his native Nokobee County. But as developers begin to threaten the endangered marshlands around which he lives, the book’s hero decides to take decisive action. Edward O. Wilson—the world’s greatest living biologist—elegantly balances glimpses of science with the gripping saga of a boy determined to save the world from its most savage ecological predator: man himself.

I bring this up now because the Kindle version is, at the moment, two bucks! A tiny price to pay for a big novel about tiny ants.

Darwin’s Armada, Other Books, Cheap

Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution explores the explorations of Wallace, Huxley, Darwin and Hooker. You don’t see this in one book, and it is all very important and, for the moment, cheap at twice the price.

I’ve never read The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World but I hear it is popular among cat lovers.

Bonus book: Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War is about what was going on in the Bush White House that ultimately lead, as the title indicates, to the Great Land War in Asia that Trump is now about to escalate. Not science but I figured you might be interested.

Cheap science book deals

I’ve mentioned at various times in the past The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garrett. This is not a new book, but it is an excellent scholarly and accessible accounting of the situation with respect to emerging diseases at the time of its publication in 1995.

One of the most interesting stories covered here is the reaction in the US to the Swine Flu, during the Ford administration. I was reminded of this when we had our tiny outbreak of Ebola. I’m sure you’ve been following the whole anti-vax thing over the years. I believe that the anti-vax philosophy in the US has its roots in the Swine Flu debacle, though I’ve never seen that addressed by the usual suspects who speak and write about that problem. Anyway, I just noticed that Garrett’s book is in Kindle form for 7.99 (though cheaper in used form in print, if you look around.

For a mere two bucks you can get the Kindle version of The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story. This is the same author as The Hot Zone, and explores small pox. This 2002 book is a bit out of date vis-a-vis recent developments in genetic research, and is probably a bit sensationalistic, but if your library of sensationalistic disease related non-fiction is missing this volume, now is is your chance!

The Horses Of The World: Don’t say Neigh to this great book.

Over the years, the field guide and the coffee table book have merged, and we now have coffee table-ish books (but serious books) that include a species description of every critter in a certain clade. In the case of Horses of the World by Élise Rousseau (Author), Yann Le Bris (Illustrator), Teresa Lavender Fagan (Translator), while every living species of horse is in fact covered, the book is a comprehensive guide to breeds of horses.

Of which there are 570.

A horse is horse, of course, but but is a donkey or an ass? What about zebras?

Horse people are very picky about what they call a horse. It is generally thought that there are onlly three living or recent species of horse. The Prewalski’s horse (Equus ferus prezewalski), which lives in Asia, the tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) which is the European version of this animal, and went extinct when the last zoo inmate of this species died in 1909, and the modern horse, Equus ferus caballus. But if you think of a horse as a member of the genus Equus, there are more, including the donkey/ass and three species of zebra, the Kiang (a Tibetan ass), and another Asian ass called the Onager. And, since when speaking of horses, the extinct European wild horse is generally mentioned, we will add the Quagga, the half horse-half zebra (in appearance) African equid that went extinct in 1984 (having disappeared from the wild in 1883).

Since “horses” (as in Mr. Ed and friends) and Zebras can interbreed successfully, and some of these other forms can as well to varying degrees, we need to think of Equus as a close knit genus and not be exclusionary in disregarding the Zebra and Donkey.

Anyway, that is not what this book is about. As noted, there are some 570 or possibly more varieties of horse (no two experts will likely agree on that number) and Horses of the World covers them all. There is introductory material about horses, breeds, how we tell them apart, conservation status, etc. Each horse breed is then given one half of a page on each of two folios, so you see overleaf some illustrated text on one side, and a fuller and very official illustration on the other, for most breeds, with some variation.

This is one of the few books that comes with a movie, compete with some rather galloping music:

Élise Rousseau is the author of numerous books on horses. Illustrator Yann Le Bris has illustrated numerous books.

Science Books: New And Cheap (not necessarily both)

Let’s start with CheMystery.

This is a fun graphic novel mystery book by C.A. Preece and Josh Reynolds. Two cousins experience an incident that would make a physicist cry, but that works in a chemistry book because they now have the ability to observe and change matter. So this is a superhero book, designed to teach chemistry. The story is great, the science is great, and the pedagogy is well suited for kids and adults that like graphic novels.

Preece is the chem teacher (high school) and Reynolds is the artist.

This is written for grades 7 through 10 (ages 8-12) but some younger kids will do fine with it.

This book is pretty new, but I think it is available.

Here are some books that are currently available cheap on Kindle, for anywhere from free to two bucks, that are either science or otherwise, I suspect, of interest to readers of this blog:

Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World

In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Becoming a Fanatic

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, an d 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself

Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World

Adams: An American Dynasty