Two things, or so the joke goes, are sure in life: death and taxes. Entropy, that existential bummer*, is another candidate for that list. Why Fish Don’t Exist sees science reporter Lulu Miller grapple with the question of how to find meaning in a world where “there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics” (p. 3), to quote her biochemist father. She does so by examining the life of fish taxonomist David Starr Jordan who saw his life’s work destroyed – twice – and responded by rebuilding it bigger and better. But is Jordan a suitable role model? In vivid prose that jumps off the page, Miller attempts to come to terms with his complex character, tracing the heights to which confidence can lift you, but also the depths to which it can plunge you.
The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because – bonus detail – the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.
Having just reviewed Nieuwland’s American Dinosaur Abroad, historian Lukas Rieppel’s book Assembling the Dinosaur seemed like a logical choice to read next. Whereas the former focused on the plaster casts of a Diplodocus skeleton that American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated to museums, Rieppel takes in a far wider sweep of history, studying the role of dinosaurs in America’s Long Gilded Age – the period from roughly 1880 to the Great Depression in 1929. This scholarly work charts the entanglement of economic transformation, notably the rise of large corporations, with the rise of palaeontology and changes in size, scope, and management of museums. Readers with an interest in the history of palaeontology will be particularly well-served by this book.
If you visited the London Natural History Museum sometime before 2015 you will have been greeted by the skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur: a plaster cast of Diplodocus affectionately nicknamed Dippy. Dippy has left the building but is not the only such cast in existence. Historian Ilja Nieuwland here traces the little-known history of the philanthropic campaign that saw Scottish-born business magnate Andrew Carnegie donate plaster casts to museums around the world. Drawing on a wealth of archival material, he examines Carnegie’s reasons and the response of the recipients and the general audience, adding a valuable and surprisingly interesting chapter to the history of palaeontology as a discipline.
The 19th century was, for Europe and the United States in particular, a time of exploration and scientific study. Large parts of the world were still little explored and poorly mapped. Concurrent with the production of improved maps and atlases, there was a craze for a unique kind of infographic that has long since fallen by the wayside: the comparative tableau, showing the world’s highest mountains and longest rivers. This lush coffee table book sifts through the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, one of the most renowned collections of its kind, to give readers a glimpse into the development and history of these unique images.
Pick a map. Any map really. Chances are that the map is oriented with North at the top. But why is that? Maps are a visual language onto themselves, rich in iconography and symbols, and especially rich in mutually agreed conventions. So rich, in fact, that you will take many for granted without even realising it. In Why North is Up, cartographer Mick Ashworth leads the way through the history of cartographical conventions, introducing when and why they came into being, and how they have changed over time. And as a book published by the Bodleian Library, it is very attractively illustrated with a large number of maps from their – and other – collections.
Beetles do it. As do fish. And squid, sharks, jellyfish, salps, dinoflagellates, and a host of other invertebrates. Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring spectacles and has fascinated humans since time immemorial. Luminous Creatures, written by bioluminescence researcher Michel Anctil, is a chunky book that charts the history of scientific research on this phenomenon by examining the lives and achievements of many of the key players involved. Along the way, it lifts the lid on many of the wondrous details of bioluminescence.
Try as we might, science is very much the work of human beings with all their foibles. As such, scientific advances aren’t always straightforward and can run into opposition within scientific circles when new ideas run counter to currently established ones. In Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences, American geologist James Lawrence Powell demonstrates this by taking the reader through the history of four ideas in the earth sciences that initially weren’t accepted. This was a book I very much wanted to read.
Spontaneous generation, the idea that life can arise out of non-living matter, is both alive and dead today. Current science accepts the idea that at some point in the distant past, complex self-replicating molecules arose, which formed the starting point of billions of years of unicellular life. But there is an obsolete side to this theory. For millennia, philosophers and scientists believed that all sorts of creatures could arise spontaneously from the mud and slime this book refers to. In the late 1850s, The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur performed experiments that definitively put the nail in the coffin for this idea.
“Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake, […]”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, “The Black Gate is Closed”
Even Hobbits knew about elephant-like creatures. But, not so long ago, we didn’t. This book starts off with a striking realisation. Our distant ancestors lived with mammoths, using their meat, hides and bones, possibly even overhunting them to extinction. Despite having lived side-by-side with these large, majestic creatures, somewhere along the line we forgot what they were – the details of their identity not being passed down the generations and gradually fading from our stories, our myths and legends, and, finally, from our collective memory. Even though their remains were with us through the millennia, we forgot the mammoth. In turn, their remains fueled new myths and legends, from the Greek Cyclops and Titans, to Chinese dragons, the Biblical giants, and the Siberian idea of giant burrowing moles that would die upon exposure to air. How do you reconstruct the identity of a creature for which your frame of reference is gone?