Nature and Science
"Clouds are the most egalitarian of nature's displays, since each one of us has a good view of them."
~ from Gavin Pretor-Pinney's The Cloudspotter's Guide
Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again by Tom JacksonMany household appliances generate heat, but only the refrigerator creates cold -- an application of thermodynamics that has revolutionized human civilization. In this engaging, anecdote-rich account, science writer Tom Jackson traces the multi-millennial history of artificial refrigeration from the ice pits of the ancient Persian Empire to today's "cold chain," the food industry's "temperature-controlled transport corridor" that links farms, fishing boats, supermarkets, and consumers. Yet refrigeration is responsible for more than midnight snacks; it has also made possible numerous scientific breakthroughs, including in vitro fertilization, superconductors, and penicillin.
Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy by David A. MindellFirst, let's get this out of the way: we are NOT headed for a robot apocalypse. In this engaging, thoughtful analysis, MIT professor David Mindell addresses three popular misconceptions about automation: the myth of linear progress (that the natural evolution of technology is from human to fully autonomous system); the myth of replacement (that machines will "take over" from humans); and the myth of autonomy (that robots can operate independently). Instead, he cites examples of humans and robots co-evolving and working in concert, from self-driving cars to robotic surgery to drone warfare.
Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness... by Lisa RandallDespite its name, dark matter is "neither ominous nor powerful," explains particle physicist Lisa Randall. Mostly, it's just hidden from view: although it comprises 85% of the universe, dark matter can only be detected indirectly through measurement of its gravitational effects. In this accessible, thought-provoking book, Randall defines dark matter (distinguishing it from both black holes and dark energy) while describing its role in the formation and composition of the universe. Finally, for those wondering where dinosaurs enter the discussion, she puts forth a plausible hypothesis that a disc of dark matter embedded in the Milky Way dislodged a city-sized object from its orbit 66 million years ago, altering its course enough to strike Earth and cause a mass extinction event.
The Horse: The Epic History of our Noble Companion by Wendy WilliamsBefore horses galloped, they probably scampered. That's just one revelation in journalist Wendy Williams' comprehensive history of the horse, which covers 56 million years and six out of seven continents. In addition to describing equine biology and evolution, she also considers the longstanding, mutually beneficial relationship between humans and horses. Most relevant for horse lovers, she describes the complexities of horse behavior through observations of both captive animals and free-roaming populations, including the wild American mustangs, Australia's drought-tolerant brumbies, and the endangered garranos of the Iberian Peninsula.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World by Andrea WulfDid you know that the U.S. state of Nevada was almost named "Humboldt," after the Enlightenment-era German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt? During his lifetime, Humboldt was the "most famous man in the world after Napoleon," due to his five-year expedition to South America, not to mention the 34 bestselling books he wrote about his experiences. Never heard of him? This biography rescues Humboldt from relative obscurity, describing his life as well as his many contributions to science. For example, Humboldt came up with the concept of climate zones, created isotherms (contour lines on maps), discovered the magnetic equator, and redefined our concept of nature itself -- as a web of life connecting every organism on Earth.
Our Sun: Biography of a Star by Christopher CooperOur sun is one amazing G-type main sequence star. Describing its life cycle from birth (4.5 billion years ago) to impending death (the red giant phase slated to occur some 5.4 billion years from now), this visually appealing "biography" uses images from sources such as NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory to explore the sun's composition and structure, its role in Earth's formation and evolution, and its impact on other planets in the solar system. And, for those unfamiliar with the language of heliophysics, the book also contains a helpful glossary of terms.
Air: The Restless Shaper of the World by William Bryant LoganIn this "tour-de-force journey through the natural world" (Kirkus Reviews), author and arborist William Bryant Logan explores the nature of air, that omnipresent yet oft-ignored medium that surrounds and sustains us. From circulation patterns that change the weather to the airborne transmission of particles, Air examines how our planet's atmosphere influences all life on Earth. Fans of this 3rd book in a loosely connected trilogy (after Dirt and Oak) might also appreciate Gabrielle Walker's An Ocean of Air, which covers similar ground but with greater emphasis on the physical sciences.
The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds by Gavin Pretor-PinneyDon't know your stratus (fog) from your cumulonimbus (thundercloud)? Not to worry, because author Gavin Pretor-Pinney, journalist and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, has created this entertaining guidebook to the waters of the troposphere. Describing how and where clouds form, Pretor-Pinney provides accessible explanations of natural phenomena (for example, using a lava lamp to explain thermal convection currents) and includes photographs, line drawings, and diagrams to help novice cloudspotters identify different types of clouds. For a historical perspective on meteorology and cloud classification, try Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds.
Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and The Making of the Birds of America by William SouderSince the 19th-century publication of The Birds of America, a comprehensive catalog of the continent's avian life, the name Audubon has become practically synonymous with ornithology. But before he became a household name, John James Audubon struggled with his own origins -- born "Jean Rabin" in Haiti, he was the illegitimate son of a French naval officer -- as well as with the indifference of the scientific establishment. Throughout the 15-year creation of what would become his magnum opus, Audubon's passion for natural history kept him going in the face of numerous setbacks. Under A Wild Sky focuses specifically on The Birds of America's creation; for a general biography, try Richard Rhodes' John James Audubon.
Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us by Donald K. Yeomans"Dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program," asserts Donald K. Yeomans, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In a calm, measured assessment of near-Earth objects, Yeomans describes the different types of NEOs (asteroids, comets, meteors, and meteoroids) and explains the threat they can pose to life on Earth. Readers fascinated by astronomy or terrified of large-scale impacts may want to check out William E. Burrow's pragmatic The Asteroid Threat, or Phil Plait's playful Death from the Skies.
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