Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not Darwin's best book, but his last book

As part of the decades challenge, I read Charles Darwin's final book, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms with observations of their habits. If you are thinking that there is NO WAY a book with a title like that could be disappointing, I'm afraid you are wrong. This book was boring. At times, it was excruciatingly so. Making matters much worse was the fact that the copy of the book I got had none of the figures. There were supposed to be 20 or so photographs of fun stuff like worm castings and excavations of roman ruins that worms had some influence upon, etc., but none were in my copy, which by-the-by was published by and purchased through If you really want this book, the figures would be essential.
Darwin was ever the scientist. He fed worms in pots different garden veggies to determine their favorites (I won't tell you the results...wouldn't want to ruin your read), and calculated the amount of soil eroded per acre per year by worms by measuring the amount of soil (castings) they bring up to the surface that will be washed away through surface runoff. He had an attention to minute detail to say the least. I remember from my visit to his home that he had large rocks placed in his backyard so he could calculate how fast the action of worms would "sink" the rock. The man did not do half assed science ever. When he tackled a problem like worms, he tackled it full bore. I totally respect that. But it doesn't always make exciting reading and now I'm somewhat scared to tackle his book about the various contrivances of orchids to ensure pollination by insects. But I'll definitely read "On the origin of species" again. That was a great book, as was "The voyage of the beagle". So enjoy your Darwin, but make a wise choice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Another damn review: "the snake charmer" by Jamie James

I saw this book at the bookstore and bought it after reading the cover. I love snakes and this was part biography, part adventure/travelogue and part snake natural history. I enjoyed the entire book except that throughout the book, I knew the ending was tragic. The hero of our story, Joe Slowinski, is a herpetologist who was a born snake lover and an up and coming snake researcher who was at the zenith of his career. Everything in his life has come together. He's got a great job, a great girl, etc., and is leading an expedition to Burma to study snakes, which is one of his lifelong dreams. Unfortunately, during this expedition, he is accidentally bitten by a banded krait and dies. It's uncertain exactly why he got bitten; perhaps a snake was mislabeled, but at any rate, our hero put his hand into a bag with a krait and got bitten. In the middle of nowhere with no antivenom, to which he was allergic anyway, there was no real hope. So, if you love happy endings, don't read this, or any of the Lemony Snicket books either. But it was a fascinating read. I could not put this book down.

A review of Bonk

Bonk by Mary Roach is a fun book. It is an interesting and very funny overview of some of the "research" on human sexuality. Much of Kinsey's research was highlighted. Kinsey wrote the famous books on the sexual behavior of males and females in the 1950s and he and his fellow researchers were into filming some pretty wild stuff. The author tried to get access to the films, but was denied by "Kinsey" people who have his archives. The author not only discussed past and current research and interviewed current researchers in the field, but she actually participated in some research. She and her husband traveled to England where they were "scanned" using a CT scanner (I think it was a CT scanner; it's been a while since I actually read the book) whilst they had intercourse. Her description of this participation was interesting and enlightening. Her husband and the researcher were discussing golf as they were "scanned". Doesn't sound very romantic or very represntative of real sex...being crammed into a machine and having sex while your partner makes pedestrian conversation with a total stranger.
I did learn a little bit about "how things work", but mostly I learned about some of the research into sexuality. It is also abundantly clear from this research how little we know about such an important activity. The author made this book much fun, and I will definitely read her other books.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What an Animal Challenge

My girls have talked me into joining another challenge. The What an Animal Challenge sounds like much fun. I am having a bit of trouble narrowing my selection down, so I will try the old strategy of making a long list and vowing to read some of them. Here goes:

Hen's teeth and horse's toes by Stephen Jay Gould
The life of insects by V. B. Wigglesworth
Ants at work by Deborah Gordon
Insects of the World by Anthony Wootton
Spiders of the World by Rod and Ken Preston-Mafham
The alchemist's cat by Robin Jarvis
Snakes: a natural history edited by Roland Bauchot
The ape in the tree by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman
Lizards: windows into the evolution of diversity by Eric Pianka and Laurie Vitt
Discovering Fossil fishes by John Maisey
Dogs: their fossil relatives and evolutionary history by X. Wang and R. Tedford
Dinosaurs, spitfires, and sea dragons by Christopher McGowan
Among orangutans by Carel Van Schaik

I'm still working on a few challenges, but I look forward to getting on this list. Just don't know where to start.