The Big Ones

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them) by Dr. Lucy Jones

Seismologist Lucy Jones describes a wide variety of natural disasters and ways communities can prepare for the future. I started reading this book after the recent 7.1 magnitude earthquake in eastern California, the day after a 6.4 magnitude quake, both of which she discussed at news conferences and at multiple television stations. As well as being a noted scientist, Dr. Jones is also an excellent storyteller, making the science behind volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods accessible to readers.

Two points she made repeatedly stand out for me: humans dislike randomness, look for patterns, and sometimes demand prediction even though many natural disasters are very hard to predict. In addition, we tend to forget events that happened more than three generations ago, even major natural disasters. Many Japanese coastal villages have stone tsunami markers, which saved some villages in 2011 but went unheeded in others. I had never heard about the megafloods in California and other western states in the winter of 1861-2. Huge lakes covered telegraph poles over an area larger than the state of Connecticut. Villages and farms were wiped out, and cities like Sacramento were completely regraded on a higher level. But a similar flood today would be even more devastating.

Jones writes about Pompeii, modern Italy, Lisbon, Iceland, Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, and much more. She also talks about working with Los Angeles to make the city more resilient to a future quake, and stresses the importance of planning for events that are very likely to happen, even though we don’t know exactly when or where. Suggested for readers interested in science, history, or natural disasters.
Brenda

The Perfectionists

The Perfectionists : How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester

I enjoyed this combination of history, technology and biography which describes the advances in precision engineering that keep our technology running smoothly, at least most of the time. Chapters on clocks, lenses, guns, jet engines, and computer chips are introduced with anecdotes and short biographical sketches of inventors and engineers. The importance of precision is highlighted by a near catastrophic jet engine failure and the blurry images of the new Hubble Space Telescope. Highlights include the contrast between luxurious Rolls Royce automobiles and the assembly line turning out Ford Model Ts, along with the discovery that in Japan, Seiko still makes some watches by hand. While not a fast read, this book will please the author’s many fans. Simon Winchester, a geologist and journalist, has written about the Oxford English Dictionary, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, weather, and the Yangtze River.

Brenda

 

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

A remarkable book to savor, about the remarkable journeys made by young Washington, from boyhood on a sugar plantation in Barbados, fleeing by airship and boat to Virginia then following a scientist to the Canadian Arctic. A young slave born in 1830 who doesn’t know his mother’s name, Wash is loaned to his master’s brother Christopher, a scientist building an airship. Pursued by a bounty hunter to the United States, Wash becomes a gifted illustrator and develops a fascination for marine life. Wondering why he was chosen and abandoned propels loyal, curious Wash from the Canadian Artic to Nova Scotia and eventually to London, Amsterdam, and a desert to find his answers. Compelling but not a fast read, character-driven but with a wonderful sense of place, this award-winning novel is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.

Brenda

 

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

How many dinosaur species can you name? If it’s more than a few, you are likely to enjoy this terrific mix of memoir and popular science. Young paleontologist Brusatte travels the globe introducing the reader to other scientists and their exciting finds. I learned that Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils have been found only in western North America, and they were pretty smart, but couldn’t outrun a car. Some dinosaurs had feathers, and European dinosaurs were smaller than elsewhere. Brusatte, from Ottawa, Illinois, clearly has the job of his dreams, as this is the golden age of dinosaur research, with a new species of dinosaur discovered every week, on average. Perfect for fans of popular science or readers of Michael Crichton’s novel Dragon Teeth.

Brenda

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate

by Peter Wohlleben

An absorbing, leisurely read, about how trees grow and communicate. If you enjoy a walk in the woods of area forest preserves or the Morton Arboretum, you may enjoy spending time with German forester Peter Wohlleben. I was interested to learn that trees, even of different species, can communicate with each other through scent and chemical signals sent through the fungal network around their roots. They can send signals of attacks by insect pests or herbivores, and even share sugar when another tree is stressed or injured. They also compete for sunlight and space, migrate (very slowly) when the climate changes, react to storms, drought, and injuries, and take risks deciding when it’s best to grow taller or shed their leaves. The likelihood of a single seedling growing up to be a mature tree is very small, but it can be supported by its parent tree as it grows. Urban trees have more challenges, but still manage to communicate, though they aren’t likely to live hundreds of years like a beech or oak tree in a forest. Wohlleben even has a 500-year plan to create thriving forests, which may be aided by getting his many readers to think about and see trees differently.

Brenda

 

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

Naturalist Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig, meets a forty pound octopus named Athena, and becomes fascinated by octopuses. She becomes an octopus observer at the New England Aquarium in Boston and meets aquarists, interns, and volunteers who bond while an octopus wraps an arm or two around their arms, and while they stroke her soft head. Octopuses (not octopi) are intelligent, very curious, and capable of changing the color, pattern, and texture of their skin many times in an hour. Boneless, they can and will fit in very tiny places and try to escape from their tanks to explore the world. The suckers on their eight arms can smell and taste, and are both strong and flexible. Over a couple of years, Sy gets to know four giant Pacific octopuses in Boston, travels to Seattle to watch octopuses mating, and learns to scuba dive. Sy observes wild octopuses in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Poignantly, she also watches a favorite octopus, Octavia, grow old. After reading this absorbing, moving memoir, I look forward to spending time at aquariums observing the amazing octopuses.

Brenda

The Glass Universe

The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel

An absorbing history of women in astronomy and stellar photography, for readers of Hidden Figures. I enjoyed reading about the women computers and astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 through the 1930s, examining glass photographic plates of stars, and analyzing the data, working at half the pay of men. The observatory has a library of these photographs going back more than a hundred years, which is being digitized. These photographs led to several advances in astronomy, as did photographs of stellar spectra. Annie Draper, wanting to see her late husband’s work continue, funded much of the observatory’s work for years. Edward Pickering was the director for many years, followed by Harlow Shapley, and they oversaw new telescopes, expansion of the buildings, grants for women doing graduate work in astronomy, and new mountain observatories in Peru and South Africa. Sobel, known for her witty books on the history of science, such as Longitude, used information found in letters, memoirs, diaries, and notes of astronomy conferences to bring the women, including Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, vividly to life.

Brenda