Lauren Redniss’ latest book is an odd duckling among graphic novels. Rather than following any kind of paneled format, it contains passages of text interspersed with vibrantly-colored photogravure etchings and atmospheric pastel drawings that take up the entire surface of the page, resulting in an effect that is more like a book of hours than Peanuts. Those who enjoyed Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain will find an evocative companion in Thunder & Lightning.
In Thunder & Lightning, Redniss seeks to depict how weather has shaped our world and how we have adapted in a constant attempt to better predict and manipulate the weather. She has gathered the research of a wide variety of historians, scientists and environmental activists, and heavily peppers the text with their quotations, always opting for clear, plain-spoken statements from the mouths of experts rather than a summary of their findings. From this, fantastic stories emerge — of how the US military experimented in making their own rain during the Vietnam War, of hidden utopias in an Icelandic archipelago covered in permafrost year round, of the outdoor air conditioning engineered to cool the Kaaba in Mecca — along with poignant anecdotes of the natural disasters that are still fresh in our memories — Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene, the Chilean mine collapse, the summer wildfires in California. Through these tales, one becomes infected with Reniss’ wonder towards the sky and what it might bring, for even as we deepen our understanding of the climate and learn to create clouds, the forecast remains mysterious.
After his success with What If?, Randall Munroe is back to tackle yet another aspect of science in everyday life — exactly how is the world around us constructed? In Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Munroe delves into the workings of our world, from the insides of our cells to our solar system and a lot of what’s in between.
Munroe states in the introduction that “…there are lots of other books that explain what things are called. This book explains what they do.” So this book won’t help you pass a vocabulary test or memorize the terminology, but it will explain in simple terms how a lot of the world around us functions. And this is on purpose — Munroe crafted a list of the “ten hundred” most used words in the English language and then restricted himself to only using those words in the book. So instead of the Curiosity Rover diagram or Human Torso diagram, Munroe breaks down the Red World Space Car and Bags of Stuff inside You (by the way, this book has forever changed how I view bags).
It may seem slightly ridiculous or humorous to be discussing boats that go under the sea (submarines) and food-heating radio boxes (microwaves), but Munroe is known for balancing scientific fact and innovation with humor, and this book is no different. His blue and white sketches of the items he’s discussing include funny little asides from his stick-figure illustrations on almost every page.
Even still, his depictions of these engineering marvels are anything but ridiculous. Thing Explainer is a fascinating and stimulating read for all ages, letting us remember to appreciate the world around us because it’s a lot more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Even if we can explain it in ten hundred simple words.
In his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was a superstar — a fearless adventurer, penniless aristocrat and brilliant polymath. He befriended and collaborated with many of his illustrious contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He was the personal hero of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and his work was the basis for their great achievements. But he is largely forgotten in the English-speaking world, despite lending his name to numerous places and even species. In her latest book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, author Andrea Wulf seeks to reestablish Humboldt’s celebrity and pay homage to his genius.
In keeping with a biography of a man whose curiosity knew no limits, Wulf’s take on Humboldt’s life is multi-faceted and includes detailed, interwoven narratives of the scientific fields his work impacted. She examines how his personal relationships, politics and ethics were formed and how he used his beliefs, in turn, to enact change in the turbulent world around him. Humboldt undertook two major expeditions — one to South America and another stretching across Southern Russia into the Mongolian steppes. The product of these voyages emerged as theories he developed about the interconnectedness of the natural systems that are the foundation of our understanding of biology today. His major work Cosmos can easily be seen as the precursor to the major documentary phenomena of 2006, Planet Earth. And yet Humboldt also famously brought a sense of wonder and poetry to his work that helped to form the Romantic and Transcendental movements in the arts. Reading about Humboldt’s remarkable achievements and the fantastic experiences of his journeys instill one with a sense of wonder and curiosity about what is outside.
This book has been released alongside a spate of literature on the natural world, including the 2015 edition of The Best of American Science and Nature Writing (edited by Rebecca Skloot), and many of these new titles will be make for good pairings alongside this denser read. The Curious Nature Guide and Cabinet of Curiosities will be particularly useful to any budding naturalists inspired to get out and explore the world around you, like Humboldt did.
The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is the output of more than two decades of Tristan Gooley’s experience being in tune with the land and helping others learn to do the same. Sometimes I question Gooley’s sense — like when he gets himself lost in an abandoned underground slate mine — but I cannot question his fortitude or his know-how. When stuck in the aforementioned abandoned slate mine, he was resourceful and used the “dip” of the rocks underground to find his way. For those with no idea what “dip” is, or how to use it, he explains in a way that anyone can understand. Obviously, he found his way out, or he would not have been able to write this book. His techniques must work.
Lost Art is at times laugh out loud funny, but Gooley has all the gravitas of any scientist when he is explaining the finer points of how not to die in the wild — even something as simple as figuring out how to tell when approaching civilization. He explains all of his how not to die lessons in language that is easy to understand and fun to read. His love for the wonders of the world around him bleeds through the page. Soon, the reader will be locating tracks of mice and deer, and they, too, will feel his passion for the glory of the natural world.
This book is a must for any fan of the outdoors. Gooley’s passion for wonder and knowledge is infectious. Also look out for his previous book, The Natural Navigator, in which Gooley explains how to find one’s way just by using the world around them.
Automatons! Higher mathematics! World domination! The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua contains everything inquiring minds could ask for. A history of the nascent development of computing, it contains a detailed and thoroughly researched account of the collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in their creation of the Analytical Machine (now known as a computer). Not limited to just explanations of the mechanical and theoretic processes, Padua also delves into contextualizing the machine’s creation with profiles of the people, culture and time period that had an influence on its formation. Any dryness you might expect of such subject matter is diverted by speculation of what Sherlockian adventures could have happened if the groundbreaking machine actually managed to be produced in the Victorian era of its imagining.
Padua’s zeal for her subject is infectious and her research has yielded amusing vignettes of the characters who were involved in the creation of computation, including cameos by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and Queen Victoria. Despite her frequent demurrals to expertise, she concisely breaks down the complex engineering of her subject (with diagrams!) so that it is understandable for those of us who aren’t engineers, mathematicians or wizards. Be warned: It is text heavy for a graphic novel, primarily because the number and density of footnotes rivals those of the late Terry Pratchett. Like The Great Pratchett, however, the footnotes contain amusing digressions whose levity make them worth the effort.
With infinite care, deep detail and vast meteorological knowledge, Adam Sobel recounts the events leading up to one of the most destructive storms in history in Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and Columbia University Professor, recounts the growth of the storm and the predictions leading up to the disaster which were relied upon by elected officials, civic leaders and the general public.
Studies have shown that there is an approximate four to one benefit to cost ratio of investing in preventive measures, yet we lack the imagination to foresee the potential for disasters such as Sandy. Historically, we experience a disaster and then plan for the next event. However, with global warming gradually making its effects known, we may not realize the disaster in time to take effective measures. With this scenario, Sobel argues, “buying insurance after the flood will not work.” Development of low-lying areas, a rising sea level and climbing global temperatures will produce great environmental challenges. This will require broad cooperation between local, state and federal agencies and the private sector. Through clear-headed science, Sobel argues that we cannot afford to politicize an issue of such profound international importance as climate change. Storm Surge is a highly thought-provoking, engrossing tale of nature at her most destructive. It is also a story of human nature, and how we react, or fail to react, to our environment and its demands.
Dr. Sobel received his PhD in meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a tenured professor at Columbia University. He has won several major awards, including the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, the Meisinger Award from the American Meteorological Society, the AXA Award in climate and extreme weather and the Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union.
Mikita Brottman may be a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but she clearly has a greater passion in her life. In The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, Brottman shares not only her love for her French bulldog but how dogs have been a major sources of inspiration to people throughout history. Grisby, the titular dog, was the influence for Brottman’s book which explores many human-canine relationships, both fictional and real.
While each chapter is ostensibly about such pairings as Prince Albert and his dog Eos or Charles Dickens’ character Dora and her beloved dog Jip, Grisby does turn up throughout the narrative in asides and anecdotes. The stories run the gamut from heartwarming to heartbreaking as Brottman relates tales about the very peculiar bond that exists between people and their furry friends. Just be warned that some of the dogs did meet untimely and even grisly ends which are told in graphic detail.
Most anyone with a passing interest in space exploration was wowed by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield while he was commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012 and 2013. Hadfield drew a large following, adeptly using social media to reinvigorate awareness of astronomy and the importance of understanding our place in the larger universe. Now back to earth and an adjunct professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo, his latest book is full of mesmerizing photos from space titled You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.
Hadfield explains in the introduction that the ISS fully orbits the Earth in 92 minutes, essentially 16 times a day. While he was mostly tasked with scientific responsibilities, over time he was able to take about 45,000 photographs of the wonders down below. While he was unable to capture every shot he desired, as time went on he learned to better compose his images so they became more obviously the work of a photographer rather than mere satellite images. And as he moves from continent to continent in organizing the photos, the incredible topography of our planet comes into focus.
To make the photos come to life, the author/photographer sprinkles humor and his obvious sense of wonder and joy in the captions. Small icons included with some images hint at what Hadfield was seeing in the photo, such as how a dental x-ray is mimicked in the unusual features of a Western Australian coastline. A sense of awe at the size of our planet and the diversity of the Earth’s environment is felt quickly while poring over the glossy pages of this fast read. And those who want more of the same can check out this BCPL interview with local astronaut Reid Wiseman or follow his tweets and posts from the ISS.
Award-winning photographer Traer Scott brings nocturnal wildlife to vivid life in Nocturne: Creatures of the Night, her fascinating book of animal portraiture. A detailed introduction explains the processes that Scott went through to compose and best feature the animals, including how her husband constructed black foam core boxes to provide fully black backgrounds for the smaller creatures. She also describes in detail the experiences of corralling a little brown bat on to its “stage”; the short, vivid life of a luna moth and how she felt obligated to photograph and release it humanely; and the first defense porcupines use when feeling threatened – a pungent odor she found herself covered in when going for the perfect shot leaving her barely able to breathe.
The bulk of the lovely book, of course, is the stunning photographs themselves. Each portrait of the featured beings comes with a short explanation of some of the animal’s more captivating nocturnal behaviors. The author also conveys that the habitats of too many of the animals presented are being destroyed as humans encroach on their environment. From the well-known, such as species of owls, bats and raccoons, to the various felines, snakes and amphibians that stalk the darkness, Scott’s photographic subjects glow with life. The fur, scales and feathers of the studies catch the light against the black, becoming brilliant and almost tangible. An easy-to-hold size makes Nocturne a beautiful package to pore over with amazement at the photographs and the animals contained within.
Early on the morning of September 22, 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw’s vehicle went left of center, striking another car. The occupants of that car, Jim Furfaro and Keith O’Dell, were killed on impact in the resulting accident. When questioned by police on the scene, Reggie told them that he thought he had hydroplaned. Upon further investigation, police found that Reggie had been texting at the time of the accident. In fact, he had sent and received 11 text messages in the moments leading up to the crash and was likely texting at the moment of impact. Matt Richtel’s new book A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention begins with the story of this tragic accident and examines how the immense increase of technology in recent years has impacted our ability to process information and focus.
It’s probably not at all surprising that we are more distracted today than ever before. The rapid growth of technology has exponentially increased the amount of information our brains process every day. In fact, a study showed that people consumed three times the amount of information in 2008 as they did in 1960. Richtel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the dangers of distracted driving, examines the effects that technology has on our ability to focus. What he finds is both timely and fascinating. A Deadly Wandering revolves around the accident and resulting legal case, but that’s not the whole story. Richtel also includes data that neuroscientists like Dr. Adam Gazzaley have found relating to how today’s technology has impacted our cognitive abilities.
This is a compelling work of narrative nonfiction, written by an author who clearly knows how to tell a story. Richtel humanizes the issue while sharing fascinating scientific research into one of the most important issues today. This story is guaranteed to capture your attention.