Tag Archives: books

Monarch Butterflies and Milkweed: An amazing new book

monarch_milkweedMonarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution by Anurag Agrawal is a fantastic, readable, scientifically rich, detailed monograph about – you guessed it – the monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant.

The monarch butterfly begins a springtime northward migration by flying a good ways north, where females lay eggs and die. Then the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed and metamorphose, and the newly minted butterflies then fly further north, and this cycle happens again. This happens a few times. The southward migration is different. The butterflies, which are across large areas of temperate North America, fly all the way south to their Mexican wintering grounds.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 8.42.14 PMIt is a widespread belief in America that monarchs rely on milkweed plants, and that the decline of milkweed explains an alarming decrease in monarch butterfly numbers over recent decades. That first belief is true: The monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed, and the caterpillars feed on that plant. But it may not be true that a decline in milkweed is a problem for the monarchs. Agrawal makes a very good case that milkweed is not connected to monarch decline, and suggests but does not pin down other explanations.

Monarchs are bitter tasting and, actually, toxic. They are toxic because the caterpillars take in and sequester, and pass on to subsequent morphs, a specific toxin in milkweed. You probably knew that. But, did you know that there was a very clever and rather complicated experiment conducted in the 1960s that established this fact?

We often hear that there are two kinds of milkweed. There is the kind that monarchs lay their eggs on, and the kind that they don’t. We know this because, according to the Internet, some people, in an effort to save the monarch, planted the incorrect species instead of the correct species.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 8.42.43 PMBut did you know that there are 37 species of milkweed? Monarchs uses several species, but may prefer some. There are other butterflies that also rely on the milkweed (they are known as the “milkweed butterflies”).

The milkweed and the monarch have a tight and long term evolutionary relationship, both having adapted to the other’s adaptations, in a co-evolutionary story of epic proportions. But, this is not one of those stories of mutual benefit or cooperation. The monarchs exploit the milkweed, and the milkweed tries to defend itself, with only limited success. It is not a pretty picture, but it is a very interesting one.

Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Coevolution is to date the coolest nature or science book I’ve seen so far this year. The year is young, but this book is fantastic, so I expect to see it finish in the top two or three, at least. Increasingly, I’m enjoying books written simultaneously for the general public as well as scientists, by scientists who know the material because they are among the contributors to the base of knowledge being expounded upon. This is an example; Anurag Agrawal is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Entomology at Cornell University. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

I highly recommend this book.

(By the way, if you’ve not read Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver, about monarchs, climate change, an interesting family living in Appalachia and an interesting monarch butterfly research, you should!)

Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations vii
1 Welcome to the Monarchy 1
2 The Arms Race 22
3 The Chemistry of Medicine and Poison 43
4 Waiting, Mating, and Migrating 63
5 Hatching and Defending 90
6 Saving Up to Raise a Family 119
7 The Milkweed Village 148
8 The Autumn Migration 178
9 Long Live the Monarchy! 210
Acknowledgments 243
Notes 249
Image Credits 271
Index 275

Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: New Field Guide

Just got my copy of Birds of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East: A Photographic Guide by Frédéric Jiguet and Aurélien Audevard.

This is the first and only field-ready photographic bird guide that covers every species in Europe. There are 2,200 photos covering 860 species. The West Asian and North African coverage is of all of the species there that have occurred in Europe, so think of this primarily as a European guide.

The entry for the Mute Swan.
The entry for the Mute Swan.
I hasten to add and emphasize. These are not your grandaddy’s photographs. Many photographic guides have pretty nice looking photographs that show a bird, but then, when you go look up the bird you saw, you quickly discover that many of the best guides (such as this one) are not photographic, but rather, follow the Peterson/Pedrides tradition of drawings designed to help in identification. Jiguet and Aedevard use photographs that are then enhanced and set in a non-photographic background or matrix, so they end up looking, and acting, a lot more like the drawings. This means that key features are indicated and notated.

Critically important in this guide is the ratio between the above mentioned numbers. For every species, there are potentially several photographs. Sometimes, it is male and female. Some other morphological categories are illustrated. For some birds, especially raptors, there may be numerous views in flight.

The amount of information give per bird is minimal (this is a field guid) and the range maps are classic style and well done. Some books have dozens of pages of front matter, but this book has almost none. Other than the index and credits, there is no back matter. Yet, the book is well over 400 pages long. That’s a lot of birds in one book. If you want a European bird guide for the field, this is the one.

About the authors:

Frédéric Jiguet is one of France’s leading ornithologists and a conservation biologist at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He is director of the Centre de Recherches sur la Biologie des Populations d’Oiseaux (CRBPO), and serves on the editorial board of France’s premier bird-study journal, Ornithos. Aurélien Audevard has been studying birds for much of his life and has conducted several high-profile conservation studies for the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (LPO PACA). His photographs have appeared in many of Europe’s leading birding magazines, including Ornithos, L’Oiseaux, Birding World, and Dutch Birding.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

Introduction 6
Species descriptions 12
Swans 12
Geese 14
Shelducks 21
Dabbling ducks 22
Whistling ducks 28
Diving ducks 28
Sea ducks 34
Stifftails 41
Vagrant and exotic ducks 42
Gamebirds 45
Divers (Loons) 55
Grebes 58
Shearwaters and petrels 61
Storm-petrels 66
Rare petrels and albatrosses 67
Frigatebirds 75
Tropicbirds 76
Gannets and boobies 77
Pelicans 80
Cormorants 81
Herons, bitterns and egrets 83
Storks 93
Spoonbills and ibises 94
Spoonbills and storks 96
Flamingos 97
Honey-buzzards 99
Buzzards 101
Snake eagles 105
Kites 106
Vultures 108
Harriers 113
Eagles 117
Osprey and Black-shouldered Kite 126
Accipiters 127
Falcons 129
Rails, crakes and gallinules 137
Cranes 143
Bustards 145
Oystercatcher and Turnstone 148
Stilts and avocets 149
Stone-curlews and coursers 150
Pratincoles 151
Plovers and lapwings 153
Sandpipers 162
Woodcocks and snipes 173
Dowitchers and Upland Sandpiper 176
Godwits 177
Curlews 178
Larger sandpipers 180
Phalaropes 185
Skuas (Jaegers) 187
Gulls 190
Terns 211
Auks 222
Sandgrouse 227
Pigeons and doves 229
Parakeets 234
Cuckoos 235
Owls 238
Nightjars 246
Swifts 248
Contents
Kingfishers 251
Rollers 253
Bee-eaters 254
Hoopoe 255
Woodpeckers 256
Larks 262
Swallows and martins 269
Pipits 274
Wagtails 279
Accentors 284
Wren and Dipper 286
Robins and chats 287
Redstarts 291
Stonechats 295
Wheatears 298
Rock thrushes 303
Thrushes 304
Bush warblers and cisticolas 311
Grasshopper warblers 312
Reed warblers 315
Tree warblers 320
Sylvia warblers 324
Leaf warblers 333
Crests 341
Old World flycatchers 343
Tyrant flycatchers 348
Penduline tit and leiothrix 350
Reedling and parrotbill 351
Long-tailed tit 352
Tits 353
Nuthatches 358
Treecreepers 360
Wallcreeper and Golden Oriole 361
Shrikes 362
Crows and jays 370
Starlings 377
Waxwings 379
Bulbuls and mynas 381
Sparrows 382
Introduced exotic finches 386
Finches 389
Buntings 404
Vagrant Nearctic passerines 417
New World warblers 433
Index 434
Photographic credits 444

End of Nature, First Americans

Book note:

There are two books you may want to check out because, for the moment (Tuesday, March 7th is the moment), they are deeply discounted at Amazon:

Kindle version for two bucks: The End of Nature

Kindle version for three bucks: The First Americans

I also want to note that Shawn Otto’s book, “The War on Science,” is now available as an audio book: The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It.

How to develop a digital plan to make change

Rosa Parks wasn’t just some kid who decided to defy white authority and relinquish her seat on the bus.

For one thing, she was a bit older than a kid. For another, she carried out this defiant act as part of a larger strategy to cause necessary and urgent change in the rules of society.

When the 106th Congress awarded Parks a medal honoring her activism, they called her the “the mother of the freedom movement.” Never mind that today, one member of the Republican party, which again controls Congress, thinks it is “Time for another Kent State … One bullet stops a lot of thuggery.” We have in fact come a long way, and most of that progress can be attributed to acts of individual heroism, group action, the occasional moment of great oratory, all that, embedded in a less obvious but carefully constructed plan.

Without the plan, it doesn’t work. Random acts of unplanned activism can waste resources, and can even have negative consequences. In a simplified version of recent history, the #Occupy movement energized and invigorated a lot of people who were already energized and invigorated, and produced almost no change. From within that movement there emerged a more thought out plan, the “Draft Warren” movement, which made much more of a mark, and from that, more or less, came the Bernie Sanders bid for the presidency. Sanders didn’t get the nomination, but he could have; his was not a candidacy of conceit. One might conjecture, in fact, that if #Occupy was more purposefully organized and carefully planned out, with the idea in mind of eventually putting forward viable candidates for various offices, that Sanders would have gotten the nomination, or at least, somebody anointed by millennial progressives, and that the movement would have resulted in a very different situation than we have at the moment of this writing.

I know, that’s a pipe dream, but the point is real: organized activism produces results, having a plan matters. Not having a plan is little more than “raising awareness” and that is not a suitable objective. Raising awareness by itself can eventually lead to an inured population. That’s the last thing we need as we tweeter on the edge of civilization’s collapse.

I wonder what Rosa Parks would have tweeted when she was being carried off the bus? I wonder what the bus driver would have tweeted? I wonder what the blogosphere would have said about this? I wonder what the Change.org petitions would have looked like? The truth is, any and all of that digital yammering would have had little to no effect on the progress of the civil rights movement, at that time and that place.

Unless, of course, they had a plan.

Brad Schenck has a plan, or more exactly, is prepared to help you get your plan together, with this newly available book: The Digital Plan: A practical guide to creating a strategic digital plan. It is inexpensive as a soft bound volume, free as a Kindle Unlimited book.

I became interested in this book because of its use in political activism, but once I got a copy of it I realized that it has much broader uses, including general marketing or selling a product, perhaps a self published book, or a new technology project idea, or whatever.

The fundamental theory behind this book is first that without a plan you are very unlikely to make the change you want happen, so you need a plan. Believe it or not, regardless of how straightforward that sounds, it is very difficult to get people to accept that idea. The second key concept presented in the book is this: one you know you need a plan, don’t expect to just think up the ideal plan on your own. There is a long history of development of strategy in general and a somewhat less time-deep history of strategic digital planning. For the price of this book, you can access a healthy dose of that hard earned knowledge.

From total beginner to technical expert, you will be digitally empowered by engaging with The Digital Plan. Whether you’re the director of a digital communications department or you’re a member of any team wishing to wield or understand the power of digital, this book will provide you with the tools you need to plan and execute digital strategy with ease.

Using his many years of experience directing digital strategies for campaigns and organizations, Brad A Schenck outlines everything you want to know about digital planning, utilizing digital tools and making the most of your collaborative efforts.

In this book, you should expect to find: Expert guidance framed with thoughtful questions you should ask. Bullet points of the most up-to-date tips and lots of them. Templates that will help you frame your plan, whatever your goals may be. Stories and anecdotes from someone who has advised hundreds of digital plans at the highest level. From the very technical to the more artistic, The Digital Plan covers everything from design and social media to data and analytics. This book is a must-have for anyone wishing to make the most of their digital presence to create powerful impact by driving community action.

This book started as an Indiegogo campaign, which was fully funded.

Brad Schenck worked on the Obama campaign’s digital strategy (2012), the Digital strategy for Organizing for Action, oversaw the 2010 regional digital strategy for the DNC, and several other major projects of note. Most recently, he has worked with the Rainforest Action Network and Vote.org.

I highly recommend The Digital Plan: A practical guide to creating a strategic digital plan. for your digital organizing edification!

The website for the book is here.

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Scratch Programming For Kids, By The Cards

Last October I reviewed Scratch Programming Playground, by Al Sweigart.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 2.38.32 PMYou will recall that Scratch is a programming language that uses drag and drop elements to construct a program.

Individual objecgts, including “sprites” that can move around on the screen, as well as static graphic elements, sounds, etc. get their own code, and this code can be set up to start under various conditions, such as when something touches something, or the user hits a certain key, etc.

This allows for the development of very simple but fun programs, and vey complicated ones as well.

Scratch is normally implemented on an MIT web page, though it can be installed on a computer for local use. Increasingly, specialized versions of Scratch are being used for robotics. I have predicted that Scratch will for the basis of the programming language that will give normal humans access to the Internet of Things.

The image on the right is a segment of code for an implementation of Pac-Man on Scratch.

This programming code applies to a sprite that looks like the yellow Pac-Man thingie. The entire block runs when a certain (“start”) signal is received, causing the sprite to point in a certain direction and go to a certain location, to start the game.

The next block is repeated “forever” (not really, but until the program is terminated or the loop exited on purpose).

Then the various “if” blocks determine what happens. If Pac-Man’s red part (a little dot out in front of itself) touches anything black, which basically means clear runway to move along, then it moves forward. Then, a series of if blocks pick up signals form the game player’s arrow keys, causing Pac-Man to change direction. The controls basic movement of the Pac-Man sprite around the board.

Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 2.45.35 PMElsewhere in the code, the Pac-Man eating monsters are controlled, and one of those uses the code shown here on the right. Once the game starts, this monster (“Pinky”) moves to a starting point, then for the entire game glides in the direction of Pac-Man until it is killed.

That gives you an idea. For more of that, and information about the book I recommend you use to learn Scratch, I mean, give to your kid to learn scratch, go here.

And now I have something else for you.

Scratch Coding Cards: Creative Coding Activities for Kids is a collection of cards that you, er, your kids, can use to learn Scratch programming. This is rated for kids 8 or above, but I think they can be easily used by younger kids, with a modest amount of adult help.

The cards come in sets that go together meaningfully, and they are color coded. For example, there is a set of “Let’s Dance Cards.” This includes coding examples addressing sequencing, music, taking turns, leaving a trail, etc.

The front of each card gives a visual indication of what the result is going to look like, and the back has the code. This is typically further divided (on the back) in to three parts: Get ready (what you need to have, know, etc.), the code itself (like the code blocks shown above, but generally very little bits at a time), and a “try it” prompt or a helpful tip of some kind.

There are sections or racing, hide and seek, story telling, and other projects.

At first I was wondering why they don’t just make this into a book, but then I remembered that kids like to play with things that are explicitly not books. Also, the cards to not have to stay together or in order. Indeed, you can take cards from different project groups and put them together to create new programming projects, to some extent.

Scratch Coding Cards: Creative Coding Activities for Kids is a fun addition to one’s set of programming tools. If you gave a kid a book on Scratch for one holiday or birthday, this may be a good followup next time around a few months later.

Emergency Thanksgiving Help: Books for Uncle Bob

When I go to Thanksgiving, all the people there will be reasonable. Also, this will be in Minnesota where politics are not discussed. And if they are discussed, my Father-in-Law has well developed techniques to run interference, as is his responsibility as head of the hosting household. There will be chairs to get from the basement (always wait until the last second to ask Greg to help with the chairs, just in case he starts talking politics!). The dogs are trained to make a fuss when given secret hand signals. That sort of thing.

But you may not be as fortunate as I am. Perhaps you will be having Thanksgiving with some people who are not either a) Democrats or b) silent. In the old days (last month) the big concern was climate change or, possibly, evolution. Now, of course, it is the Trump presidency.

If you are very unfortunate, you have an “Uncle Bob.” That’s the code word for that man without a filter who never misses a family event and can’t wait to argue with you. There are a lot of different kids of Uncle Bob, and I’ve got some suggestions for books that may help prepare for some of them.

In case your Uncle Bob is an Evangelical Christian:

Climate change is a confusing and polarizing issue. It may also prove to be the most daunting challenge of this century because children, the elderly, and the poor will be the first to feel its effects. The issue is all over the news, but what is seldom heard is a conservative, evangelical perspective.

Connecting the dots between science and faith, this book explores the climate debate and how Christians can take the lead in caring for God’s creation. The authors answer top questions such as “What’s really happening?” and “Who can we trust?” and discuss stewarding the earth in light of evangelical values. “Acting on climate change is not about political agendas,” they say. “It’s about our kids. It’s about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Capping off this empowering book are practical, simple ideas for improving our environment and helping our families and those around us.

Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment

In case your Uncle Bob is big on Bigfoot: Don Prothero, Dan Loxton, and Michael Shermer on cryptozoology

Throughout our history, humans have been captivated by mythic beasts and legendary creatures. Tales of Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness monster are part of our collective experience. Now comes a book from two dedicated investigators that explores and elucidates the fascinating world of cryptozoology.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero have written an entertaining, educational, and definitive text on cryptids, presenting the arguments both for and against their existence and systematically challenging the pseudoscience that perpetuates their myths. After examining the nature of science and pseudoscience and their relation to cryptozoology, Loxton and Prothero take on Bigfoot; the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, and its cross-cultural incarnations; the Loch Ness monster and its highly publicized sightings; the evolution of the Great Sea Serpent; and Mokele Mbembe, or the Congo dinosaur. They conclude with an analysis of the psychology behind the persistent belief in paranormal phenomena, identifying the major players in cryptozoology, discussing the character of its subculture, and considering the challenge it poses to clear and critical thinking in our increasingly complex world.

Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

In case your Uncle Bob is a Neocon: Rachel Maddow on the unmooring of American military power

Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow’s Drift argues that we’ve drifted away from America’s original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war. To understand how we’ve arrived at such a dangerous place, Maddow takes us from the Vietnam War to today’s war in Afghanistan, along the way exploring Reagan’s radical presidency, the disturbing rise of executive authority, the gradual outsourcing of our war-making capabilities to private companies, the plummeting percentage of American families whose children fight our constant wars for us, and even the changing fortunes of G.I. Joe. Ultimately, she shows us just how much we stand to lose by allowing the scope of American military power to overpower our political discourse.

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

In Case your Uncle Bob thinks our elections are fair: On the hacking of the election by Putin

In April 2016, computer technicians at the Democratic National Committee discovered that someone had accessed the organization’s computer servers and conducted a theft that is best described as Watergate 2.0. In the weeks that followed, the nation’s top computer security experts discovered that the cyber thieves had helped themselves to everything: sensitive documents, emails, donor information, even voice mails.

Soon after, the remainder of the Democratic Party machine, the congressional campaign, the Clinton campaign, and their friends and allies in the media were also hacked. Credit cards numbers, phone numbers, and contacts were stolen. In short order, the FBI found that more than twenty-five state election offices had their voter registration systems probed or attacked by the same hackers.

Western intelligence agencies tracked the hack to Russian spy agencies and dubbed them the CYBER BEARS. The media was soon flooded with the stolen information channeled through Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. It was a massive attack on America but the Russian hacks appeared to have a singular goal—elect Donald J. Trump as president of the United States.

New York Times bestselling author and career intelligence officer Malcolm Nance’s fast paced real-life spy thriller takes you from Vladimir Putin’s rise through the KGB from junior officer to spymaster-in-chief and spells out the story of how he performed the ultimate political manipulation—convincing Donald Trump to abandon seventy years of American foreign policy including the destruction of NATO, cheering the end of the European Union, allowing Russian domination of Eastern Europe, and destroying the existing global order with America at its lead.

The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election

Also, Mayer’s Dark Money: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

In case your Uncle Bob is an idiot:

With his trademark wit and insight, veteran journalist Charles Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.

Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate. But his thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated. Erudite and razor-sharp, Idiot America is at once an invigorating history lesson, a cutting cultural critique, and a bullish appeal to our smarter selves.

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

An Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change

My friend Paul Douglas calls himself an albino unicorn. He is a Republican (one of my few Republican friends!) and an evangelical Christian (one of my few evangelical Christian friends!) who is extremely well informed about climate change, and who acts on a day to day basis as a climate warrior, informing people of the realities of climate change at several levels.

I tend to think of Paul as a tire, because he is where the rubber meets the road. His job is informing corporations and such about the risks they are facing right now, today, tomorrow, next week with respect to weather. Paul has been doing some sort of meteorology or another for quite a while now, having been a TV presenter meteorologist in Chicago and the Twin Cities, having consulted in Hollywood (Jurassic Park and Twister), and having run various metrology companies like the one he runs now. He also gives talks around the Twin Cities and elsewhere about climate change, writes a regular column for the Star Tribune, and has consulted for or testified for various government agencies on long term climate change risks.

Paul and I have somewhat similar histories. Born only a few weeks apart, raised in the non-urban part of a semi-industrialized semi-rural eastern state (New York for me, Pennsylvania for him), and having had formative weather experiences early in life. In Paul’s case, it was a major hurricane that eventually lumbered into the mountainous areas of Central Pennsylvania, causing killer floods and other mayhem. Paul, a teenager at the time, and a scout, developed an early warning system for river floods, and probably earning one hella merit badge.

Paul is an excellent explainer of climate and weather, as you can learn from this interview. And, he does not restrict his communication efforts to places like churches or whatever venues are frequented by Evangelical Christians such as lutefisk breakfasts, snake handling session, etc. In fact, the aforementioned interview is on Atheist Talk Radio.

And now, Paul has co-authored a book on climate change written specifically for Evangelicals: Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment.

The book’s structure swaps back and forth between science (the parts written by Paul Douglas) and scripture (the parts written by co-author Mitch Hescox). I don’t know Mitch, but from the blurb I learn: “Mitch Hescox leads the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), the largest evangelical group dedicated to creation care (www.creationcare.org). He has testified before Congress, spoken at the White House, and is quoted frequently in national press. Prior to EEN, he pastored a church for 18 years and worked in the coal industry. Mitch and his wife live in Pennsylvania.”

Paul Douglas (www.pauldouglasweather.com) is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Paul Douglas (www.pauldouglasweather.com) is a respected meteorologist with 35 years of TV and radio experience. A successful entrepreneur, he speaks to community groups and corporations about severe weather and climate trends, and appears regularly on national media outlets. Paul and his wife live in Minnesota.
Now, you might think that the chances of an Evangelical Christian reading my blog is about zero. This is not true. Many Christians, ranging from Evangelical to less-than-angelical read this blog, they just don’t say much in the comments section. Except those who do, mainly those denying the science of climate change. Well, this book is for all of you, especially the Evangelical deniers, because here, the case is made on your terms and in your language, in a very convincing way, and, including the science. It turns out that, according to the Bible, you are wrong on the Internet.

Let’s say that you are a fairly active atheist who likes to annoy your Christian relatives at holidays. If that is the case, then this book is for you!! This is the book to give to your Uncle Bob.

I can’t attest to the scriptural parts of this book. This is not because I’m unfamiliar with Scripture or have nothing to say about it. Both assumptions would be highly erroneous. But, in fact, I did not explore those parts of this book in much detail, just a little. But I am very familiar with the science in this book, I’ve delved deeply into it, and I can tell you that Paul has it right, and it is very current.

From the publisher:

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-10-13-57-am

Forget the confusing doom and gloom talk about climate change. You want to know the truth about what’s happening, how it could affect your family and the world, and more important, if there are realistic ways to do something about it–even better, solutions that reflect your beliefs.

Connecting the dots between science and faith, pastor and influential evangelical leader Mitch Hescox and veteran meteorologist Paul Douglas show how Christians can take the lead in caring for God’s creation. Tackling both personal and global issues, these trusted authors share ways to protect our families, as well as which action steps will help us wisely steward the resources God has given us.

This hopeful book offers a much-needed conservative, evangelical approach to a better way forward–one that improves our health, cleans up our communities, and leaves our kids a better world.

What I find exceptional about Paul Douglas’s conversation about weather, aside from the fact that he well commands an audience of those who might otherwise be naysayers, is that he brings decades of direct observation of actual climate change into the discussion. He has been a) reporting the weather during the periods of maximal change so far, b) while paying close attention and c) never had his mind shut down to ignore climate change, as has happened in the past to so many meteorologists.

The book is loaded with helpful greyscale graphics, and notes/references. Paul is at @pdouglasweather

The book launches on November 15th (see you at the launch?) but is available now.

The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids

The Outdoor Science Lab for Kids: 52 Family-Friendly Experiments for the Yard, Garden, Playground, and Park is a good guide to home science experiments for kids, usually with adult involvement, ranging across a fairly wide range of age but mainly, I’d say, middle school for unsupervised work, or pretty much any age if supervised.

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-12-44-37-pmAll of the experiments can be done by adults with younger kids watching or being involved to varying degrees.

Most of he experiments cost little or nothing, depending on where you live (like, do you live near a pond?) and what the phrase “common household ingredients” means to you.

Many of the experiments involve things in nature, which is why it is the “outdoor” and not the “kitchen” or “bathroom” science lab.

Make a pitfall trap, find and observe inverts, conduct plant warfare using the principle of allelopathy.

For those in temperate zones, these are mainly spring-summer-fall experiments, so with 52 of them, this book is good for a few years.

Each spread (two pages) has one experiment, richly illustrated with photographs. There is a list of materials, safety tips, the protocol, and a side bar on the science itself, along with a “creative enrichment” idea such as making graphs, or testing the allelopathic properties of invasives.

The author, Liz Heinche, is a molecular biologist and mom, thus this book. From the publisher:

Outdoor Science Lab for Kids offers 52 fun science activities for families to do together. The experiments can be used as individual projects, for parties, or as educational activities for groups. Outdoor Science Lab for Kids will tempt families to learn about physics, chemistry and biology in their backyards. Learn scientific survival skills and even take some experiments to the playground! Many of the experiments are safe enough for toddlers and exciting enough for older kids, so families can discover the joy of science together.

screen-shot-2016-10-15-at-12-44-56-pm

I know of at least one pre-school that uses the book. I’m not a big fan of home schooling, but home schoolers will like this book. The book is not a substitute for middle school or high school science instruction in schools.

Also in the same series are Kitchen Science Lab for Kids (where you will find an excellent milk rainbow protocol) and Gardening Lab for Kids, which I’ve not looked at.

Science Books For Early Readers

We went to the local library the other day to find books in the range appropriate for Huxley to read. It isn’t sufficient to say he’s in the first grade. Between preschool and second grade, there are (in English, anyway) probably about four or five levels of reading ability, and kids move through them fast. In addition to that, there are who the heck knows how many different scales, developed by various individuals and organizations, to reflect reading levels. It is so complicated that there is actually a company that you can pay to tell you what reading level a book is.

dk_book_on_otters
So we asked the librarian to help. I should mention that this is a good library and the librarian seemed generally competent. But she wasn’t able to help much. It turns out that reading level is not part of the Library of Congress system. Or so I surmise.

Personally, I think this confusion stems from the apparent fact I noted above. Kids, when they start reading, go from chimpanzee to NYT reader in a couple/few years. There are many levels of ability in there, and really, of course they are not levels but rather arbitrary stages imposed on a continuum. Or a set of continua. The problem of categorizing early reading books is so difficult because all the different systems that attempt this run aground at the early end of the scale, and thus, so many different appearing systems. This is why, when you put tile on a wall, you don’t start on the bottom. You start a few rows up, and work your way down and up from there. That way you will not be foiled by the lack of level at the base, and your only cost is having to cut every one of the bottom tiles. This may seem like a digression but some day you will thank me for that information.

Anyway, I recently got a good look at a sample of DK Publisher’s “Learn To Read” books, which are have six categories, pr-1, 1, 2, 3, 4, and “Adventures.” OK, that’s a bit clumsy, but the key point here is that the numbered levels, 1 through 4, are consistent and meaningful categories.

Let me give you some examples of the text by reading level, followed by links to a selection of the more science oriented books. There are many books at each level, dealing with LEGO themes, super heroes, and other things.

dk_book_volcanoesLevel 1: Beginning To Read
Example Text:

A butterfly flits from leaf to leaf.
On each little leaf she lays one or two eggs.
She squeezes the eggs out of her body.

(From Born to Be a Butterfly.)

Example books:
Bugs Hide and Seek
Tale of a Tadpole
Jungle Animals
Sea Otters

Level 2: Beginning to read alone

Example Text:

The air ambulance plane rescues injured people from places that are difficult to reach.
It can deliver people to the hospital much faster than an ordinary ambulance can

Example Books:
Eruption!: The Story of Volcanoes
Space Quest: Jump to Jupiter
Dinosaur Dinners
Spaceships and Rockets

dk_book_on_rainforestLevel 3: Reading alone

Example Text:

Emergency dispatchers often stay on the phone until help arrives. They talk to callers to keep them calm. Most importantly, they tell the caller what to do until the emergency services arrive.

Example Books:
Rain Forest Explorer
Hope for the Elephants
Rocket Science

Level 4: Proficient readers

Example Text:

Ride the little train that climbs high into the Alps in Switzerland, and you will be treated to some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. From a small alpine town, the red train makes a steep climb up the Jungfrau mountain and past a famous peak called the Eiger. Many climbers dies on the sheer north face of the Eiger before it was finally scaled in 1938.

Example Books:
Dinosaur Detectives
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters
Secrets of the Mummies
Big Fantastic Earth

You can see changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, topic, etc. Not visible in these samples are change in typeface (larger to smaller) and the overall structure of the books. The lower levels tend to have pictures and words. The higher levels add captions to the pictures, sidebars, etc.

DK books are always good, and they do a pretty good job with science. I won’t quibble with details on little kids books (such as the lack of attention to biogeography and central evolutionary paradigms). These are a far sight better than the science books I had access to when I was a kid!

Amazon FreeTime Unlimited Review

Amazon FreeTime Unlimited is a subscription service that covers children. I normally avoid subscription services of any kind. But, I have a six year old, and suddenly it made sense.

Huxley is very tech savvy for a newly minted first grader. Last night I was reviewing a new tablet that had multiple operating systems on it. He was building a robot or something and watching me at the same time (I was projecting the tablet’s image on a big screen). I said out loud, but mainly to myself, “How the heck to I change operating systems on this?” Huxley reached over and pointed at a button that did not look like anything that would do such a thing. I pressed it. It changed the operating system that was running. After the fact, I realize that it made sense. Huxley saw it right away.

The point is, I can’t really manage the problem of putting this or that app or this or that game or this or that book or this or that video on a Kindle Fire that Huxley has more or less full access to, without actually hampering his technological development and driving myself crazy. The FreeTime Unlimited service locks down an Amazon Kindle android account, i.e., on a Kindle Fire, for use by a certain kid for access to a certain and rather large range of educational or just plain fun do-dads, books, videos, etc.

In actual fact, Huxley knows how to hack the Kindle Fire I’ve set up for him, but he also knows not to do it. He basically understands that there are safe zones and less safe zones on the Internet, and on devices, and that he actually has access to all of it but is supposed to stay in the safe area. You can get a Kindle Fire for kids and put FreeTime on it (or get a bundle with all of it together) and lock it down so the kid really can’t get out of their space. I just chose, at this time, to not take that step.

So, the subscription service, in this case, stands in for my messing around with content on Huxley’s Android device.

So, what kind of content is there and how much does it cost? First, it costs less than five bucks a month, or if you already have Amazon Prime (which I do – see “Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial”), then it’s less than 3 bucks a month, for one kid (more for more kids). So, if you figure one or two Kindle books a month, one paid for app every few months, or the greatness of using all those “free” games but with the advertising gone (i.e., the paid rather than free game) to the tune of a few a month, etc., then this service is underpriced if they provide enough stuff.

And they do. It seems that a very large portion of the Amazon Kindle literature for kids is available for free. Even the Harry Potter books. The number of apps and games is huge. The video offerings seem to mirror what we already have on our ROKU and other places, but the truth is, we simply haven’t explored that to any great degree. It is not so much movies, but rather, shorter things like some educational TV shows and age appropriate stuff from Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, etc.

When I signed up two months ago, the first month was free. I don’t know if that offer is available now, but if so, it might be worth a look.

I believe it is also possible to put the entire thing on your TV via a Fire TV, and to access it on other Android devices or Kindles. I’ve not done that. I imagine that to use Android devices you have to install the Amazon system enhancement thingie that also allows you to watch Amazon prime streaming movies and such. I will be trying to put this on a tablet, within a user account for Huxley, just to see if it is possible. I’ll let you know how that goes.

To makes sure I’m being clear and accurate, here is what Amazon says about this service:

Amazon FreeTime Unlimited is an all-in-one subscription for kids that offers
unlimited access to thousands of kid-friendly books, movies, TV shows, educational apps, and games. FreeTime Unlimited offers unlimited access to over 10,000 kid-friendly books, educational apps, games, movies, and TV shows from top brands like Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, Electronic Arts, and many more.

  • A world of content for kids to explore within a completely kid-friendly environment
  • Promote reading and math with educational apps and thousands of books
  • Best-in-class parental controls – choose what content each child sees, and set educational goals and time limits
  • Personalize each kid’s experience with profiles, and let them watch where they want to – on Fire Tablets, Kindle eReaders or Fire TV
  • Great for kids between 3 and 12 years old

In FreeTime, the background color changes to blue, letting parents know at a glance that their child is safe. Kids only see titles that have been selected for them. Younger kids can search before they know how to type by using Characters – for example, tap on “Cinderella,” “Dinosaurs,” or “Puppies”.

Personally, I think the entire search capabilities of FreeTime kinda suck. Don’t get it for the ability to search for things. Use Google for that!

While in FreeTime, kids do not have access to social media or the internet, and they can’t make in-app purchases.

FreeTime lets parents set daily time limits, or restrict certain categories – like games and video – while leaving unlimited time for reading.

FreeTime Smart Filters ensure that your child sees age-appropriate content within FreeTime Unlimited. We use input from Common Sense Media and from parents like you to ensure that pre-teens don’t get the baby stuff and little kids don’t see the scary stuff. Parents can also adjust Smart Filter settings to tailor the experience for each child.

With Learn First, parents can block access to games and cartoons until after educational goals are met. Using Bedtime, parents can control when FreeTime shuts down for the day.

Parents can create up to four individual child profiles, customize each child’s access to content from the parent’s library, and decide which FreeTime Unlimited titles will be viewable in each profile. It’s like giving each kid their very own, personalized tablet. Kids can’t exit FreeTime mode without a password.

If you have more than four kids within the age range of this product, it is possible that you are reproducing too fast. Slow down please.

Fairly new is the “child safe camera.”

Kids can take pictures and edit them by adding stickers, drawings, and more. Parents can view photos and videos taken by their children in a separate photo gallery, and have the option to auto-save to Amazon Cloud Drive.

This is not the kind of thing I normally do, but I tried it. It is not the kind of thing I normally like, but I like it. I wasn’t sure if it would go OK but we have been using it for a couple of months, and it has gone great. So, I’m telling you about it.

I bought a Kindle Fire and a kid proof case and then subscribed to the service. You can be less stupid and get a Kindle Fire with a kid proof case and the service at a massive discount.

I should note that FreeTime Unlimited has been around for several years. If you google around to investigate it, as I did, you’ll find a lot of old and out of date information. Make sure you are looking at recent discussions.

And, finally, I just want to say that Curious George is an ape, not a monkey.

The Mammals of Borneo

How do you judge a field guide?

Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and KalimantanSome field guides you leave on the shelf and rarely look at. Others you may put in the living room to spice up the coffee table, because they make great eye candy, but are otherwise not that useful. Others you take out, and at least have around in case you need them. Others you make sure you are never very far away from because you find yourself looking for them all the time.

rajah640hAnd, every once in a while, a field guide comes along that you want to take to bed with you.

I’m sure you know what I mean.

It is such a beddable field guide.

Sure, if you are going to Borneo, you may want to check this out because it covers that region. But really, when you are out and about in the wilds of Borneo, you’ll be with a guide. Most of the mammals you’ll ever see can be listed on an index card, with large hand writing, and the few others that might come along, you’ll only see for a fraction of a second, and your guide will be able to make up something good about them.

So, yeah, bring it, and it will serve you well, help you keep the guide honest, etc.

But then take it to bed with you, because Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo by Quenton Phillipps and Karen Phillipps is some serious reading.

There are 277 species of mammals covered for the region, including the fish-like mammals such as whales. Most of the hard work in this book is done with drawings, which are excellent, but there are also photos. The drawing-photo combination is quite rare among field guides.

Note the second half of the title: “And their ecology.” There is about 75 pages of text prior to the “field guide of mammals” part, which blend interestingly and smoothly into one of the key mammal groups, the fruit eating bats, while still talking about ecology. The last 75 pages or so are detailed expositions of key ecologically important areas, and other back matter. The middle 225 pages or so have the “field guide” but about 25% of that space is not just field guide, but rather, some other information about the mammals being covered.

Here is an example of why this is a great book. It is a field guide to mammals. And their ecology. Thus, an entry on a fruit:
fig640h

That’s not the last of the figs. Lots more on figs. Figs are keystone species in Borneo.

This is a book you can browse through, as your night time reading, enjoy immensely, learn a great deal from and never actually go to Borneo. But if you are going to go to Borneo, get the book. And spend a little quality time with it before your trip. Bring it along on the trip. Then, after the trip, use it to fill in the blanks.

Borneo, by the way, is pretty interesting.

Bovids Of The World

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are 143 species of bovids. The Animal Diversity Web is a bit less precise, indicating that there are “more than 140 extant and 300 extinct species.” That second number is highly questionable because today there exist sister species that are so similar I doubt they could be told apart from fossils alone. If you check around the internet, this ~140 number comes up again and again, and Wikipedia says 143.

horns640hResearch published in 2011 and later by Colin Groves, Peter Grubb, and David Leslie, which has been tagged as controversial by some but accepted by others, puts this number much higher, over 270. Why such a difference, and why is this controversy only emerging recently? It isn’t like bovids are barely studied, or highly cryptic.

One of the reasons probably has to do with vagueness in the species concept itself, and it may well be the case that there are sets of species defined by Groves et al that are too finely split. But, the most likely explanation is that more modern methods, using DNA and recently developed statistical techniques, simply come up with a larger number. I’ve only read some of this literature, but I’m pretty sure the larger number is much closer to correct than the smaller number.

This has an important impact on understanding and addressing problems of ecology, diversity, evolution, and conservation. With respect to conservation, this means that some populations of bovids, the more rare and geographically restricted ones, are likely to be more at risk of extinction, if there are other populations at different locations that can no longer be referenced as survivors. It has been suggested, indeed, that splitting large taxonomic groups into larger numbers of species is some kind of pro conservation shenanigans. Such hippie-punching has no place in modern biology, of course. The increase in our accounted-for diversity that happens with more research is both expected from historical trends over recent decades (though it is a reverse of earlier decreases in diversity as more was learned about certain groups) and is predicted by evolutionary theory.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 3.00.19 PMAnyway, I’m not here to talk about that controversy exactly. Rather, I want to point you do a new book, a really fantastic book, called Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives, by José Castelló.

Castelló uses the larger number, by the way: 271. And this book includes all of them.

The majority of this 664 page book consists of plates and a species description on the left, and details on the right, including excellent range maps, with one species in each layout. The species are divided by the usual commonly accepted tribes. This also means that many but not all of the species are grouped by very large geographical regions, because that is how the bovids are organized across our global landscape.

The back matter consists of nothing more than an index, critical in such a volume, and the front matter has an overview of what a bovid is, and details about key anatomy used in the field guide.

This book is one of a handful in the emerging subcategory of animal books that covers an entire taxonomic group either globally or nearly globally. I recently reviewed Waterfowl of North America, Europe and Asia by Reeber, which isn’t quite global but since waterfowl tend to migrate is nearly so. A while back I reviewed the guide “Sharks of the World” by Compagno, Dando, and Fowler. And I’ve reviewed one of my favorite guides of all time, “Carnivores of the World“, which covers all the carnivores except those that evolved partly into fish.

pantelope640hThis category of book is not meant to be the one book you carry with you while touring around in the field. If you go to Africa, bring The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (it includes the bovids), for example. Rather, this book is to understand the bovids as a major and important taxonomic group.

Paging through a given tribe’s entries, you can come to understand biogeography better, as you see the ranges depicted on the maps of a continent or region. Also, small bovids tend to have smaller geographical ranges than larger bovids, but there are major exceptions. Why those exceptions?

Looking at the physical variation in key features, such as body size, sexual dimorphism, head dress, and markings, you can see patterns that are best explained with interesting evolutionary and ecological theories. If you teach behavioral biology or zoology, this will be a useful reference point for your thinking on all those key bovid examples. Or, if you are just interested in animals, or are planning a trip to a place where you’ll be observing antelopes or other bovids, you may want to invest in this.

And when your crotchety Uncle Bob is over for a holiday dinner and you get into an argument about how many duikers there are in West Africa vs. Central Africa, you can pull out your copy of Bovids of the World and settle the bet!

The plates are drawings, not photographs, which is entirely appropriate in this sort of book. Habitats matter to photographs and that would bias the physical comparisons. Also, I can tell you from personal experience that many of the bovids, especially the forest dwellers, just don’t have great photographs anyway.

I studied the information on the bovids with which I’m familiar from my own fieldwork, and I see only quality information.

As far as I know, there is not another guide like this available. Also it is not that expensive.

Table of Contents:
FOREWORD by Brent Huffman and Colin Groves 5
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 7
INTRODUCTION 8
TRIBE AEPYCEROTINI
Impalas 24
TRIBE NEOTRAGINI
Sunis, Royal Antelope, Pygmy Antelope 28
TRIBE REDUNCINI
Reedbucks, Waterbucks, Rhebok 38
TRIBE ANTILOPINI
Gazelles, Oribis, Steenbok, Grysbok, Dik-diks 82
TRIBE OREOTRAGINI
Klipspringers 224
TRIBE CEPHALOPHINI
Duikers 244
TRIBE CAPRINI
Sheep, Goats, and relatives 302
TRIBE HIPPOTRAGINI
Horse Antelopes 466
TRIBE ALCELAPHINI
Tsessebes, Topis, Hartebeests, Wildebeests 496
TRIBE BOSELAPHINI
Nilgai, Four-horned Antelope 542
TRIBE TRAGELAPHINI
Spiral-horned Antelopes 546
TRIBE BOVINI
Bison, Buffaloes, Cattle, Saola 596
SKULLS 650
REFERENCES 659
INDEX 660

Learn Python Using Minecraft

Minecraft is a gaming world. Or, if you like, a “sandbox.” This is a three dimensional world in which characters do things, all sorts of things. The context for the world of Minecraft is very open ended. The player builds things, moves things, gets things, does things, in a way that makes any one gamer’s game potentially very different from any other gamer’s game.

You can buy Minecraft in various forms such as an XBox 360 version. It comes in Lego form (for example, this), and you can get a Minecraft cloud server version at Minecraft.net.

If you install Minecraft from Minecraft.net (about 30 bucks) and have Python 3, Java, the Minceraft Python API, and a Spigot Minecraft Server, you can program your own versions of the game using Python programming/scripting language.

But how? How do you do that?

Well, you can get Learn to Program with Minecraft: Transform Your World with the Power of Python. This book is intended to teach programming, in the Minecraft setting. The book is designed for kids 10 years and older, though I’m sure some younger kids can use it. Also, it must be admitted that a learning to program book like this may be most valuable for adults who are not coders but want to learn some coding, and happen to be gamers and like Minecraft.

The book, new on the market, provides excellent instructions for setting up all that stuff mentioned above. Everything should work on a Windows machine, on Mac OS X, and Linux.

The programming you do with this book is pretty sophisticated. You learn to create palaces, pyramids, to teleoport players around, to stack blocks, interact with Minecraft’s chat feature, blow stuff up, cast spells, and replicate sections of the Minecraft countryside.

Here is what is interesting about this approach. Python programming is pretty basic, and pretty useful, but one has to do a lot of work to develop something slick and fancy and highly functional (counting working video games or interfaces as highly functional). But working with the existing Minecraft system, via the API, allows some relatively simple programming to produce impressive results. This is “Hello World” on steroids, at the very least.

Of all the diverse No Starch Press programming guides, this one may turn out to be the most effective, as a teaching tools, for that special case where a person is already interested in Minecraft and wants to learn Python.

Here is the Table of Contents:

Introduction
Chapter 1: Setting Up for Your Adventure
Chapter 2: Teleporting with Variables
Chapter 3: Building Quickly and Traveling Far with Math
Chapter 4: Chatting with Strings
Chapter 5: Figuring Out What’s True and False with Booleans
Chapter 6: Making Mini-Games with if Statements
Chapter 7: Dance Parties and Flower Parades with while Loops
Chapter 8: Functions Give You Superpowers
Chapter 9: Hitting Things with Lists and Dictionaries
Chapter 10: Minecraft Magic with for Loops
Chapter 11: Saving and Loading Buildings with Files and Modules
Chapter 12: Getting Classy with Object-Oriented Programming
Afterword
Block ID Cheat Sheet

The author, Craig Richardson, is a teacher of Python, former high school computing science teacher, and has been involved with the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Books On Fossils and Evolution

Over the last several months, a lot of great books on fossils and evolution (as in paleontology) have come out. I’ve selected the best for your consideration. These are great gifts for your favorite science-loving nephew, life science teaching cousin, or local school library. Actually, you might like some of these yourself.

grandmother_fishLet’s start off with a kid’s book: Grandmother Fish: a child’s first book of Evolution by Jonathan Tweet.

From the blurb:

Grandmother Fish is the first book to teach evolution to preschoolers. While listening to the story, the child mimics the motions and sounds of our ancestors, such as wiggling like a fish or hooting like an ape. Like magic, evolution becomes fun, accessible, and personal. Grandmother Fish will be a full-size (10 x 8), full-color, 32-page, hardback book full of appealing animal illustrations, perfect for your bookshelf. US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.

I reviewed the book here before it first came out. This was a kickstarter project, and it may be currently unavailable commercially, but if you click through to the kickstarter project you can probably get a copy of it.

Donald+Prothero+Story+of+Life+in+25+FossilsThe most recent book to come across my desk is Don Prothero’s The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution. I’ve got a review of Prothero’s book in my draft file, so look for that post coming out over the next few days.

One might ask, “how do you choose 25 fossils, among so many choices, to represent evolution?” Well, Don cheated a little by mentioning more than 25 fossils. Also, you really can’t do this. Don selected fossils using several criteria, but one basis for his choice was the availability of rich historical information about a fossil’s discovery, interpretation, and effect on our thinking about evolution. And, he covers all of that.

Don is one of those rare authors who is both an expert scientist and a great writer, with a proven ability to explain things in a way that is not watered down yet totally accessible.

Here’s a selection of the many other books written by Prothero:

EvolutionTheWholeStoryParker41N2zRnkbuL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Evolution: The Whole Story is an astonishing book that needs to be on the bookshelf of anyone interested in evolution. The work is edied by Steve Parker, but authored by nearly a dozen experts in various subfields of fossils and evolution, so it is authoritative and scholarly. At the same time, it is very accessible and enjoyable. This is not a book you read from cover to cover, though you could. Feel free to skip around, and you;ll find yourself looking stuff up all the time.

The book is divided into major sections, and each section has a series of short pieces on this or that fossil, group of fossils, type of life system, method for studying fossils, etc. There is a running sidebar on the bottom of many pages giving “key events” in evolutionary history of the group of life forms under consideration The book is VERY richly illustrated, with detailed keys to the illustrations. Many of the illustrations are broken down into “focal points” that expand significantly on the illustrations’ details. There are countless additional inserts with more information. The book itself is beautiful, intriguingly organized, and it is full of … well, everything. The book is very well indexed and sourced, and has helpful, up to date, phylogenies and chronological graphics.

TheBiologyBookGeraldThe Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (Sterling Milestones) by Michael Gerald and Gloria Gerald is a compendium of biological topics and key moments in the history of biological science, organized in a sort of chronological framework. Major groups (the insects, the amphibians), major ideas (Pliny’s Natural History, Ongogeny and Phylogeny), key physiological and developmental concepts (meiosis, mitosis, many topics in endocrinology), key fossils (like the Coelocanth) and so on are discussed, very nicely illustrated. This is almost like having a gazillian short articles from Natural History Magazine (or similar) all in one book. There are 250 biological “milestones” in all. The charming part of the book is that a milestone can be an evolutionary event, an extinction episode, the emergence of a great idea, or a particular discover. And, as noted, these are ordered across time, as well as one can, from the beginning of life to a selection of the most recent discovery. The book effectively combines history of biology (and related sciences) and the biological history itself.

lifes_gretest_secret_dna_cobb511J4iZIbrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code by the well respected scientist and historian Matthew Cobb is a carefully and clearly written history of the discovery of the nature of DNA, covering a lot more than, and since, Watson and Crick. It is extremely well sourced, indexed, and supported, and very readable.

This is the detailed and authoritative work on all the elements that came together to understand the genetic code. Don’t talk about the discovery and understanding of DNA any more until you’ve read this book. From the publisher:

Life’s Greatest Secret mixes remarkable insights, theoretical dead-ends, and ingenious experiments with the swift pace of a thriller. From New York to Paris, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Cambridge, England, and London to Moscow, the greatest discovery of twentieth-century biology was truly a global feat. Biologist and historian of science Matthew Cobb gives the full and rich account of the cooperation and competition between the eccentric characters—mathematicians, physicists, information theorists, and biologists—who contributed to this revolutionary new science. And, while every new discovery was a leap forward for science, Cobb shows how every new answer inevitably led to new questions that were at least as difficult to answer: just ask anyone who had hoped that the successful completion of the Human Genome Project was going to truly yield the book of life, or that a better understanding of epigenetics or “junk DNA” was going to be the final piece of the puzzle. But the setbacks and unexpected discoveries are what make the science exciting, and it is Matthew Cobb’s telling that makes them worth reading. This is a riveting story of humans exploring what it is that makes us human and how the world works, and it is essential reading for anyone who’d like to explore those questions for themselves.

EldridgeEvolutionExtinctionExtinction and Evolution: What Fossils Reveal About the History of Life is a an updated version of a classic book about evolution and extinction written by one of the scientists who developed our modern way of thinking about evolution and extinction (especially the extinction part).

Eldredge’s groundbreaking work is now accepted as the definitive statement of how life as we know it evolved on Earth. This book chronicles how Eldredge made his discoveries and traces the history of life through the lenses of paleontology, geology, ecology, anthropology, biology, genetics, zoology, mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and botany. While rigorously accurate, the text is accessible, engaging and free of jargon.

Honorable Mentions: Older books that are great and may now be avaialable for much reduced prices.

I really liked The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy as an expose of a particular time period and major event in geological history. Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet by Prothero is a classic, again, looking at a fairly narrowly defined moment in prehistory. You can get it used for about five bucks.

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution by Dean Falk is a great book focusing on one key human fossil. This is a personal story as well as a scientific one. Again, available used for a song.

Have you read Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body yet? I’m sure you’ve heard about it. It is still a great read, and you can get it used cheap.

The only book I would recommend that uses the “paleolithic” to advise you on diet and exercise is The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living.

The Brain: An Illustrated History of Neuroscience

In 1817, Karl August Weinhold had a go at a real-life Frankenstein’s monster — only in his version he uses a cat. The German scooped out the brain and spinal cord of a recently dead cat. He then pured a molten mixture of zinc and silver into the skull and spinal cavity. He was attempting to make the two metals work like an electric pile, or battery, inside the unfortunate cate, replacing the electrical of the nerves. Weinhold reported that the cat was revived momentarily by the currents and stood up and stretched in a rather robotic fashion!

It’s Alive!!!!


Weinhold’s reanimated cat was just the tip of the iceberg. In those days, the same days during which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the forerunners of modern neuroscience were reanimating all sorts of animals (it started, of course, with frogs) including humans, with suitably horrifying results, using primitive electricity generating machines and ingeniously placed probes.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 12.00.49 PMThe Brain: An Illustrated History of Neuroscience (Ponderables 100 Ideas That Changed Histoy Who Did What When) (Ponderables 100 Discoveries That Changed Histoy Who Did What When) by the prolific Tom Jackson (see list below) mentions the cat story in a small sidebar, but several of the 100 moments in neuroscience relate to this sort of early scientific activity. The idea of the book is to put a large topic, in this case the history of neuroscience, into 100 bite sized pieces (with a 101st item at the end, a sort of technical summary) in chronological order. The result is a very browsable and fascinating book, an educational and entertaining coffee table item, even a good gift idea.

I know something about neuroscience and brain evolution, and even a bit about the history of this research, and I found most of the entries to be reasonable, well researched, and accurate. There is sufficient debunking of some of the bad ideas (about race, IQ, etc.), though I would like to have seen Jackson’s treatment of lateralization to have been a bit more probing and nuanced, since that is one of the areas where pop culture has overstayed its welcome. Still, the book is scientifically accurate, not to deep yet not a gloss.

One of the neat features of the book is a giant pull out unfoldable wall poster that is a timeline of the history of neuroscience. I’ll probably give that to my wife for her to hang in her biology classroom, especially since she teaches a fair amount about brains and intends to expand on that teaching over the next couple of years.

The other side of the foldout timeline is a set of optical illusions, including the blind spot test, the arrows affecting the apparent length of the line test, and a lot of the other usual illusions, all very well done with quality presentation and printing.

There are bits at the beginning and end of the book (including item 101, mentioned above) that serve as reference material. There is an index, though it is not dense (for example, having noted the cat story I use above, I tried to look it up in the Index but couldn’t find it). Also as an appendix is a explication of several key open questions in neurobiology (the “Imponderables”). Also, references are supplied.

The illustrations are excellent throughout.

This book is for anyone interested in science, especially neuro. If you cover this topic in your High School or Middle School classes, it is a good book to have in your library. It would make an excellent gift for the science-oriented person you know, especially since it is just out and they won’t have it yet.

This is part of the Ponderables series of illustrated books published by Shelter Harbor Press.

Other books by Tom Jackson:

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