Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Houston, We Have A Winner

Friday, July 1st, 2016

9780316338929_25c22PBS Newshour just launched Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, Nathalia Holt (Hachette/Little, Brown; OverDrive Sample) into book sales orbit, helping it soar on Amazon from a sales rank of #6,540 to 146.

The dramatic move is due to a segment of the show’s special summer reading series that offers author interviews conducted at book shows around the country. The Newshour‘s Jeffrey Brown sat down with Holt at the Los Angeles Book Festival and the pair talked about women in science during the early years of the space program and today.

Holt says that in the early days of the Jet Propulsion Lab a group of women called “computers” figured out the calculations of the space program, doing math with pencil and paper and some very bulky calculators.

Once computers were introduced, these women became the first programmers.

Her book traces their history and accomplishments and recounts how both NASA and JPL overlooked their achievements as time went by. Case in point, none were invited to the 2008 gala held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Explorer 1 (America’s first satellite), an oversight that is particularly galling since one of the Rocket Girls, Barbara Paulson, figured out the trajectory on the night Explorer 1 launched, working in the control room. Holt says “when the first American satellite is a success, its because of her. She is the one that found out it’s actually in orbit.”

Holt also talks about how 2016 is a “desperate time for women in technology,” largely due to a lack of role models. In 1984, she says “37 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences were awarded to women. And today that number is 18 percent.” While female astronauts are doing astoundingly well, making up half of the current class at NASA, female engineers are seeing their lowest numbers in decades.

Holt hopes reading the stories of the pioneering Rocket Girls and learning what they achieved and overcame, will help change that.

Order Alert: BEING A BEAST

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

9781627796330_01b61In a rare advanced review, the New Yorker discusses Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, Charles Foster (Macmillan/Metropolitan; BOT), coming out next month, calling it an “exercise of the sympathetic imagination.”

The natural history memoir recounts Foster’s time trying to live like badgers, foxes, otters, and birds, going so far as to live in a dirt barrow, eat worms, and catch fish with his teeth.

Already published in the UK to glowing reviews, The Guardian calls it “Illuminating and unfailingly entertaining … a tour de force of modern nature writing.”

Libraries have ordered very lightly. There are few holds, but the memoir, which is being compared to H is for Hawk, is likely to get more media attention.

9781616894054_ca634Featured in the same New Yorker article is another book about living like an animal, GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday From Being Human, Thomas Thwaites (Princeton Architectural Press; OverDrive Sample). The author, a designer, writes about his efforts to become as goat-like as possible, even using prosthetic goat limbs, to become a member of a Swiss goat herd. Published last week, it received attention from NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday as well as on NPR’s blog coincidentally titled Goats and Soda. Holds too are light on light ordering.

9780393246186_e9740Two recent books suggest that if humans want to live like animals, they need to step up their game. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s new book offers a challenge in the title, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Norton; Blackstone Audio; OverDrive Sample). It is currently at #19 on the New York Times Hardcover Non-fiction list after two weeks.

Genius of BirdsFocusing on a specific species, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds(PRH/Penguin; HighBridge Audio; OverDrive Sample), released in April, received attention from NPR. The two books were reviewed jointly in the NYT Sunday Book Review.

In an interview with the Washington Post, de Waal offers an explanation for this growing interest, “I think we got tired of behaviorism, which was dominant last century. More and more phenomena are coming to the fore, of animals doing things that couldn’t be explained by simple instinct or by simple associative learning. And the younger generation is much more open to seeing what animals can do on their own terms.”

Proving Einstein Right

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

9780307958198_f1384On Feb. 11 of this year scientists proved Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. It was an idea many thought could never be tested, much less proven, but an intrepid group of scientists worked for decades to do just that.

Nonfiction author and novelist Janna Levin, a physicist and astronomer herself, has written a book about the quest: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (PRH/Knopf; RH Audio; BOT; OverDrive Sample).

Yesterday, on the PBS NewsHour Bookshelf conversation, Levin explains that scientists were actually able to hear gravitational waves and “like mallets on the drum. They rang space-time itself.”

In what is a science adventure book, Levin details how a small number of determined and insightful researchers bet their careers on the concept that the waves not only existed but could actually be heard. She witnessed the process of building detector machines, the rivalries and jealousies of those involved in the project and “realized that this could actually read like a novel. And if you followed these characters, you could understand not only the process of science, but the internal ambitions and the drives.”

No one thought the project would work as well or as early as it did, she continues, “and then it struck. It came from 1.3 billion years ago. It struck Louisiana. About 10 milliseconds later, it crosses the continent and hits Washington state and rings that machine. It is a spectacular detection.”

Summing up the meaning of the discovery Levin says,

“You know, Galileo was just looking at the moon and Saturn. He didn’t foresee that there were hundreds of billions of stars in collections called galaxies, or that there were quasars powered by black holes … what a lot of us hope is that the future will be so vast, beyond what we have even imagined, that there are dark sources out there that will ring these detectors, they will record the sounds of space, and there will be things we have never even predicted before.”

Reception to the book is mixed. A front page NYT “Sunday Book Review” states, “Taking on the simultaneous roles of expert scientist, journalist, historian and storyteller of uncommon enchantment, Levin delivers pure signal from cover to cover. … what makes the book most rewarding is Levin’s exquisite prose, which bears the mark of a first-rate writer: an acute critical mind haloed with a generosity of spirit.”

The daily NYT nonfiction reviewer, Jennifer Senior, however, is far less generous, writing “Awkwardness is everywhere … Editors. Where are they.”

But readers are not bothered. The book is currently ranked just outside of Amazon’s Top 100 and libraries are showing strong holds on light orders with several locations we checked tipping over a 3:1 ratio.

A succinct explanation of gravitation waves below:

LAB GIRL Blooms

Monday, May 16th, 2016

9781101874936_d2c41The most recent audio book club pick by Slate [UPDATE: sorry, the audio is no longer on the Slate site. It is available free on iTunes]  Lab Girl, Hope Jahren (PRH/Knopf; BOT; OverDrive Sample), currently #18 on the extended NYT Hardcover Nonfiction Best Sellers list and a GalleyChat favorite.

Slate critics Susan Matthews, Laura Miller, and Katy Waldman offer glowing praise, calling it “wonderful” “beautiful” and “endearing” and saying it is already one of the 10 best books of the year, comparable to H is for Hawk and to the work of Oliver Sacks.

Beyond the style of the memoir and its tone, the Slate critics centrally appreciate the detailed insider look at what it is like to “do science.” They also appreciate the way Jahren approaches science as not about getting the world to tell you what you want it to, but listening to what is really happening.

They conclude the conversation by saying the book should be required reading.

Readers seem to agree, holds are strong at libraries we checked with spikes well above a 3:1 ratio at some locales.

The NYT Jumps the Gun for
THE GENE

Monday, May 9th, 2016

9781476733500_59c6eA week in advance of publication, the daily NYT reviews The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee (S&S/Scribner; S&S Audio), signaling high expectations for the book. The first consumer review, it follows stars from all four trade publications of Mukherjee’s second book after his Pulitzer Prize winner and best seller, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (S&S/Scribner, 2010).

Jennifer Senior, the NYT‘s daily nonfiction reviewer, is not as engaged as she would like to be and her review, while appreciative, expresses reservations.

She writes, “Many of the same qualities that made The Emperor of All Maladies so pleasurable are in full bloom in The Gene. The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people,” but she regrets that its deeper waters are not more clear or its narrative more personal and compelling.

As an example, on the topic of genetic reports she says: “Is there any value in knowing about the existence of a slumbering, potentially lethal genetic mutation in your cells if nothing can be done about it? (Personally, I wish he’d dedicated 50 pages to this question — it’d have offered a potentially moving story line and a form of emotional engagement I badly craved.)”

Libraries have bought it surprisingly cautiously, considering the strong trade reviews and the popularity of Mukherjee’s first book. Expect much more media attention.

Math with Taste, Not Tests

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

9780465097678_e1ae6A front page feature in the NYT‘s Science section sent How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, Eugenia Cheng (Perseus/PGW/Legato/Basic Books) racing up the Amazon sales rankings.

Currently #136 (up from 4,803), the book mixes fundamental mathematical principles with recipes, offering Gluten-Free Chocolate Brownies to get things going. Don’t expect a cookbook however; Dr. Cheng is focused on the math, offering an accessible, quirky, and clever tour of how it works.

The NYT‘s feature highlights Dr. Cheng’s mission as a “math popularizer,” pointing out her rising fame – she has been a guest on Late Night With Stephen Colbert and hosts extraordinarily popular online math tutorials – and her conviction that “the pleasures of math can be conveyed to the legions of numbers-averse humanities majors still recovering from high school algebra.”

To get a sense of Dr. Cheng’s culinary chops, the article offers a recipe for Bach pie, a treat to honor the composer mathematicians adore, complete with “an Escher-like braid of four glazed pastry plaits that followed divergent trajectories, never quite crisscrossing where you expected them to.”

The paperback edition of How to Bake Pi goes on sale next week. Libraries we checked are seeing steady circ. on the hardback edition, which came out last year.

For all those going to BEA, Cheng is a participant in this year’s Day of Dialog, a featured author of the Art of Nonfiction panel.

Below, she frightens Colbert:

The Smartest Animals

Monday, April 25th, 2016

9781594205217_9b364Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds (PRH/Penguin; HighBridge Audio; OverDrive Sample) is taking flight on Amazon’s sales rankings, rising on the strong coverage in The Wall Street Journal [may require subscription], which calls it “a gloriously provocative and highly entertaining book [and] a work of wonder and an affirmation of the astonishing complexity of our world.”

Exploring bird cognition, Ackerman says that we will have to count them among the smartest of animals – so move over dolphins – and humans. As the paper relays, Ackerman has found that even the most common of birds have outperformed humans (even those trained as mathematicians) in statistical tests. Tool-making, impressive memories, bird song, and the ability to plot and plan with the best of them further prove our feathered friend’s intellectual capacity.

Ackerman has also been featured on NPR’s “On Point,” Audubon ran an interview and  Scientific American granted its recommendation.

Holds are strong on light ordering.

Order Alert: THE HIDDEN LIFE
OF TREES

Monday, February 1st, 2016

9781771642484On the strength of an article in Saturday’s New York Times, a book on forests and trees soared up the Amazon sales rankings to #22.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, Peter Wohlleben (PGW/Perseus/Greystone Books; ISBN: 9781771642484;09/13/2016) explores the wonders of trees and the ways they communicate with, and care for, each other – through their own version of a social network.

Already a surprise best seller in Germany where it remains atop the German news magazine Spiegel’s nonfiction list sixth months after publication, it has the potential to become a hit here as well, caught not only in the wake of interest in wild spaces in general, but also in books that present personal views of nature such as H Is for Hawk and The Shepherd’s Life and nature/science books such as The Soul of an Octopus.

The NYT’s feature reports how Wohlleben’s book has enchanted and intrigued readers in Germany:

“The matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

Canada’s Greystone Books (distributed in the US by Publishers Group West/Perseus) will publish an English version in September. It is listed on wholesaler catalogs.

Bill Gates Reviews
THING EXPLAINER

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Thing ExplainerTrade reviews skipped over Randall Munroe’s newest book, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (HMH; OverDrive Sample), but Bill Gates steps in, posting on his blog a glowing endorsement of Munroe’s mix of illustrations and information.

Gates calls the detailed and over-sized drawings accompanied by clear explanations using common words a “brilliant concept” and “a wonderful guide for curious minds.” He goes on to say that Munroe reminds him “of Sal Khan of Khan Academy, or the novelist and Crash Course host John Green … polymaths who not only know a lot but are also good at breaking things down for other people.”

Thing Explainer is already in Amazon’s Top 100 (at #82). Munroe’s previous book, What If? (HMH, 2014) was on the NYT Hardcover Nonfiction list for over 40 weeks, and debuted at #1 during its first week of publication.

Holds are not strong yet for the new book. but expect them to grow. Monroe is getting attention, including a profile in the Wall Street Journal where he says that his favorite research technique is “googling a few search terms plus ‘pdf.’ It’s amazing what’s buried in old, poorly digitized PDFs hosted on some random professor’s website.”

The entire interview is likely to have readers googling – it is full of curiosities, including strange cloud formations and an odd animal that looks like be a cross between a cat and a lemur.

Fresh Air Talks Birds

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Two bird specialists, each of whom has recently published a book, talked with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday.

9781594859656_d3613Wildlife photographer Gerrit Vyn has been photographing birds and recording their calls for years. After contributing images to many other books, he has now released his own title, The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature (Mountaineers Books). It includes over 250 photographs by Vyn as well as essays by noted birders and naturalists.

9780547840031_e5831Scott Weidensaul, who contributed pieces for Vyn’s book, has also published his own book, Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean (HMH). Following the pattern of other Peterson reference guides, it includes an exhaustive catalog with detailed descriptions of the owls, habitat, and behavior.

Both men communicate their fascination with birds, including the “tremendous of diversity of calls that owls make,” with samples that capture the feeling of being near the birds.

Holds Alert: New Look At Autism

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 11.57.00 AMNoted science writer and WIRED reporter Steve Silberman appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, sending his new book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Penguin/Avery; Blackstone Audio; OverDrive Sample) rocketing up Amazon’s sales rankings.

A history of autism, its evolution, and the way the scientific world has approached its diagnosis, NeuroTribes is changing the conversation
on the subject.

Jennifer Senior, who says the book is “beautifully told, humanizing, important” in her piece on it in the NYT Sunday Book Review, highlights just one of the ways Silberman shines new light on the very definition of autism:

The autism pandemic, in other words, is an optical illusion, one brought about by an original sin of diagnostic parsimony. The implications here are staggering: Had the definition included Asperger’s original, expansive vision, it’s quite possible we wouldn’t have been hunting for environmental causes or pointing our fingers at anxious parents…This is, without a doubt, a provocative argument that Silberman is making, one sure to draw plenty of pushback and anger. But he traces his history with scrupulous precision, and along the way he treats us to charming, pointillist portraits of historical figures who are presumed to have had Asperger’s, including Henry Cavendish and Nikola Tesla.

Likely to become a classic in the field, it is already listed along with works by Andrew Solomon and Temple Grandin and comes with a forward by Oliver Sacks.

Holds are exceeding a 3:1 ratio across the country in libraries we checked.

Dolphins Close Up

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 10.53.48 AMOn NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday, Susan Casey talks about  her new book Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins (RH/Doubleday; RH and BOT Audio; OverDrive Sample), sending the book charging up the Amazon rankings.

In a fascinating and lengthy interview Casey details sections from her book including stories about dolphin researchers investigating language acquisition, her own unexpected swim with a pod of spinners, the astounding attributes of dolphins, and the threats facing them today.

In the following clip from the audio narrated by Cassandra Campbell, Casey explains what draws her to scuba diving, even when there is a threat of sharks.

Casey, an experienced ocean adventure writer, has also published the bestselling books The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean and The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.

Holds are steady on fairly light ordering.

Hummingbird Love

Wednesday, July 29th, 2015

9780544416031_43983Reviewers are falling in love with Fastest Things On Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood,  Terry Masear, (HMH).

There’s probably not much more you need than the title and cover to also become unchanged, but here’s a sampling of the reviews:

Fastest Things on Wings: inside the rehabilitation of injured hummingbirds — he Washington Post

Fastest Things on Wings is the soaring tale of a hummingbird rehabber — Los Angeles Times

Hollywood’s Hummingbird Rehabber Tells All —  National Geographic (take a look at this one, if only for the photos)

Even the New York Post calls it a “must-read

It was also featured on WBUR’s “Here & Now

The book is rising on Amazon sales rankings. Library orders are light.

Order Alert: DO NO HARM

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 7.25.18 AMNeurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who was the subject of an award winning film, has written a memoir about the high-risk work of operating on the brain, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (Macmillan/St. Martin’s; HighBridge Audio; OverDrive Sample).

Marsh appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross yesterday and described how he relies upon a quarter ton microscope to see inside the jelly-like substance of the brain and uses a microscopic vacuum cleaner called a sucker to remove tumors.

The memoir made multiple shortlists for a range of awards in Britain including the Guardian First Book Prize and the Costa Book Award.

The Guardian review was glowing:

Why has no one ever written a book like this before? It simply tells the stories, with great tenderness, insight and self-doubt, of a phenomenal neurosurgeon who has been at the height of his specialism for decades and now has chosen, with retirement looming, to write an honest book. Why haven’t more surgeons written books, especially of this prosaic beauty? Of blood and doubts, mistakes, decisions: were they all so unable to descend into the mire of Grub Street, unless it was with black or, worse, “wry” humour? Well, thank God for Henry Marsh.

On this side of the ocean, the memoir has received strong coverage in The New York Times Sunday Book Review and by Michiko Kakutani in the daily NYT Books section. Sam Kean reviews it for The Wall Street Journal and it is one of The Washington Post’s picks of the best memoirs for the month. It is also rising on Amazon.

Holds are strong on light ordering.

Order Alert: THING EXPLAINER

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 9.22.06 AMRandall Munroe, author of the runaway hit What If? has a new book coming out in November, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (HMH, Nov. 24).

Munroe announced the book on his popular website xkcd, “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” yesterday and it has already shot to #8 on Amazon’s sales rankings.

As Munroe details on his site, the book is a large format (9″ by 13″) collection of blueprints with diagrams of objects and explanations of their parts and uses, using only the most common 1,000 words in the English language. The result sometimes sounds like a precocious six-year-old (see the Saturn V rocket, called here, “Up Goer Five — The only flying space car that’s taken anyone to another world”). It could be the basis of some memorable party games.

There are still holds on What If? in libraries across the country. Expect high demand for Munroe’s upcoming title as well.