Sunday, September 28, 2008

Natural History of Aquatic Insects

I read Natural History of Aquatic Insects by Professor L. C. Miall for the Decades Challenge (1900s) and for the What an Animal Challenge. You know this book is old when the author refers to himself as "Professor". I'll have to do that when I write my first book. This book was written in 1903. It contains the level of nauseating descriptive detail only found in nature books from this era. It goes through various groups of aquatic insects and lists all of the information known about each. Usually one or two well known species are highlighted. But the level of detail is intense and you can and will learn quite a bit about this group of creatures from this book. All told, there really are not many books about the ecology of aquatic bugs. Even though it's 105 years out of date, this is a very educational book. I learned a lot. I did, in fact, forget much of what I learned because I read it months ago and am just now doing the review. But whenever I need to know how a midge larvae breathes or what a whirligig beetle eats, I know which book to use.

The Origin of Birds - A must for vertebrate zoologists

I read the Origin of Birds by Gerhard Heilmann for the decades challenge. This book was published in the US in 1927 and was very much ahead of its time in its content. It is more than anything else a book about the similarities between birds and reptiles and makes one of the stronger arguments I've ever read for common ancestry between these groups. Long before Velociraptor and Deinonychus and other very famous bird-like dinos were found, Heilmann saw the important similarities. He found, as have later researchers, so many similarities between certain reptiles and birds that they MUST be related. My students are to this day absolutely astounded to hear of this, but it was noted as soon as Archaeopteryx was found in the 1860s. This book has a wonderful description of Archaepteryx.
It is an incredibly detailed book. The level of anatomical detail would probably bore most people without a vested interest in vertebrate zoology to tears. But I found it extremely educational. Heilmann, as I stated earlier, was a great arguer. His rebuttal of the hypothesis that birds are related to bird-hipped Ornithischian dinosaurs was scathing.
This is not an easy book to get one's hands on. I managed to buy an old library copy for only $37, but some copies approach $100. Glad I got it and glad I read it.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stephen Jay Gould's Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

I read this as part of the What an Animal Challenge. It is a collection of the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's essays that he used to publish in Natural History magazine. It is an older collection, originally published in 1983, but still very relevant and interesting. There were essays on the history of evolutionary thought and evolutionary politics, such as the Scopes "Monkey" Trial. Several essays were on exceptions to "traditional" thinking on evolution and "Darwinism". Gould is an interesting mix of scientific and professional ego, love of Darwin, and hatred of "dogma" and a need to "think differently", especially about "Darwinism". Some of his thoughts are so bogged down in his own personal issues that he can't see facts right in front of him, while at other times he is incredible free thinking and poking fun at people who are "stuck in the rut" of traditional thinking. I used to think he was a bit more of an egomaniac, but after seeing him on the Simpsons, I saw his lighter and funnier side. But, as a lover of evolution, I must respect him and admire his erudition. Much of the time, we see the world in very similar ways. In this particular collection of his essays, Gould is, I think, at his best. The essays are thoughtful, interesting, educational, and well worth reading even 25 years after the fact. I had some of my students read an essay from a similar book last year, and many of them found Gould to be a bit tough to swallow. He was an academic and an intellectual and was very fond of big words. But he was a fascinating author full of fascinating ideas, and I will not rest until I've read all of his collections of essays. I've read several other of these collections as well as bits and pieces here and there. This collection is the best I've read to date.

Spiders of the World

I read Spiders of the World by the Preston-Mafham brothers for several reasons, not the least of which is that I love spiders. I also read this one for the Nonfiction Five as well as the What an Animal Challenge. This book is part of a series that includes Insects of the World, Rodents of the World, Sharks of the World, etc. It's the first one of the series that I read and I really enjoyed it. It was a very thorough introduction to all aspects of arachnology, including different groups of spiders, anatomy of spiders, and all aspects of the natural history of spiders. The natural history of spiders was my favorite part, especially the low-down on the sex lives of spiders. This was not too technical and not too basic. It was the perfect mix. If you want to learn more about the lives of these creatures that share our homes, yards, and lives, this is an excellent place to start. Not sure if it's still in print or not, but lots of used copies must be floating around. I bought this book over a decade ago. I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. And remember, kids, spiders really are our little friends. It's almost always much more dangerous to be bitten by a human than a spider...and more likely too, especially if you have a toddler in the house.

Mean and Lowly Things by Kate Jackson: My Thoughts

I do love a good story of field biology. When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it, and I read this one for the Nonfiction Five. It is the story of Dr. Kate Jackson, a herpetologist who was looking for a field study in which to "make her name in the field". She decided to go to the Congo to study the snakes and frogs in a relatively unexplored area. She made two expeditions to two different areas and this book is the story behind these trips. She certainly had more than enough misadventure and excitement to fill a book. It wasn't all fun and games. The main challenges did not appear to be venomous snakes, scorpions, bugs, etc., but people. The people she had to work with to get permits and the local people who helped her were very interesting. This was a good adventure story and was definitely a good read if you like such books. The only thing missing from my perspective was information about the biology of the reptiles and amphibian species she was collecting for the Smithsonian. As a biologist who relied on the Smithsonian to no small degree for my Ph.D. work, I understand the need for museum specimens such as those she collected. But I really would've liked to learn more about natural history of the beasts she encountered and collected. But this was a very enjoyable book and it really made me wish I could've been there in the Congo too.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Sign me Up for the RIP Challenge

My girls have gotten me excited about Carl's RIP Challenge. It does seem the season to read something creepy. Here's my list of possibilities:

- The haunting of hill house by Shirley Jackson
- We have always lived in the castle by Shirley Jackson
- Something wicked this way comes by Ray Bradbury
- The halloween tree by Ray Bradbury
- Duma Key by Stephen King
- Cell by Stephen King
- Lisey's Story by Stephen King
- Bag of Bones by Stephen King
- Murder in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

I am going to try to try, as Bart Simpson says, to read 2 of these fine books, or do the Peril the 2nd. Sounds fun.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Blue Blood by Eddie Conlon

This is a big book, 559 pages with SMALL text, which is why I included it for the Chunkster Challenge. I also read it for Annie's What's in a Name Challenge and the Nonfiction 5.

The author is a NYPD officer and we follow him from the Academy through getting his Detective badge. He works in the Bronx mainly in the public housing division. Needless to say, the author has seen some shit over the years. He has seen what people do to each other. Better him than me. Most of the time, he worked in Narcotics...setting up buys, etc. There is some interesting material about what it was like in Manhattan on 9/11.

What really struck me from learning about what it's like being a cop is how hard it is dealing with the beaurocracy...sorry I just can't figure out how to spell that @%^&*( word. Captains, Sargeants, etc. are constantly interfering with their work and preventing them from making arrests and "sting" operations. One day, the author recalled that he woke up and didn't want to go to work...his boss was an ass. When he realized he had a root canal and didn't have to go in, he was thrilled. That was the moment he decided to transfer to a new division. Things did get better.

Our author is no "ordinary" officer, however. Before NYPD, he got a degree in English from Harvard. He does write a good book. If you want to learn about what it's really like to be a big city cop, this is an excellent book. I didn't fall in love with it the way I did David Simon's Homicide, however. But, Officer Conlon did not work with murder most of the time, so he had different material to work with. This is a good read.

Vestiges: One Crazy, but important, book

I read Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers for the 1840s installment of the Decades challenge. This is an interesting mixture of wild Victorian aged conjecture about how the natural world works based on the old notions of progress. It was one of Stephen Jay Gould's goals in life to stamp out this kind of idea that the entire history of the world has been leading up to the moment when humans, clearly the pinnacle of evolution, appear. Ya gotta forgive the author for this, as it was the 1840s. It is also necessary to forgive the usual Victorian racism where Caucasians are clearly the most intelligent and advanced of all humanoids. But it appears that all Caucasians who could publish believed that at the time. But, Chambers was ahead of his time. He without a doubt influenced Darwin...a lot I think. Chambers discussed how life clearly went from simple to complex. He discussed the origin of species and how new species come from existing species. He strongly hinted at the tree of life. He recognized how embryology suggests common ancestry. He discusses how existing structures are modified over time. And, most importantly, he breaks the biblical literal interpretation thinking about the natural world.
I think he also influenced the intelligent design folks as well. Chambers clearly believed God was behind it all, but not by micromanaging, but by establishing the laws by which nature will "work". At one point, however, he states: "design presided in the creation of the whole design again implying a designer, another word for a Creator".
I'm glad I read this book. People have discussed in several books I've read the influence this book had on Darwin. Some say a lot. Some say a little. I think it definitely was important. Luckily, Darwin was intelligent and cherry-picked the most accurate observations.