The Martian Book Review

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Review:

I’ve been reading a lot of romance lately, so I decided it was time for a change of pace. While I was contemplating what to try next, the Sebastian Stan fans on my Tumblr dashboard (of which I have many, thanks to my current obsession with the Captain America films, where he plays Bucky Barnes*) started sharing a new viral trailer for his upcoming film, The Martian, also starring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Jessica Chastain.

I’ve heard great things about the book, which was written by Andy Weir and originally self-published, and it’s been on my to-read list for awhile, but then one of the aforementioned Sebastian Stan fans bumped it up to the #1 spot it by describing it, essentially, as the “square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 expanded into an entire book:

To which I was like, “heck yeah, baby!” because that is my favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, and so I bought The Martian and started reading it straightaway.

Bonus: it turned out to be only $5.99 on Kindle! Yay! So many traditionally published books try to charge $9.99 or even more for the Kindle edition, which is just stupid. I’m not going to pay as much as a paperback for an ebook. But $5.99 is within reason.

So, the plot of the book is that humanity has managed to get its act together with NASA funding (hint, hint) enough to do manned missions to Mars. On the third mission, the astronauts are forced to abort the mission six days into their time on Mars due to a powerful dust storm, but during the evacuation, astronaut Mark Watney, the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, gets hit by a flying antenna and is presumed killed. The crew attempts to recover his body, but are forced to leave the planet before they can find it.

However, Mark’s not dead, and once he regains consciousness and realizes what happened, he sets about figuring out how to survive alone on Mars for four years until the fourth mission can come along to rescue him.

The description of the book as the “Square peg in a round hole” scene from Apollo 13 was not misleading at all. I was in nerd heaven, especially reading Mark’s log entries. Although I’m not enough of a nerd to know how accurate some things were, the stuff I knew anything about seemed reasonably accurate, and I thought that Weir did a really good job overall of describing extremely technical stuff in an understandable and entertaining way.

In addition to the delightful nerdiness, the story was really tense and gripping from beginning to end, and very hard to put down. The great pacing and consistent tension was especially impressive considering that a lot of what Mark had to do was pretty damn mind-numbing. Crossing 3000+ kilometers of barren wasteland at 25 km/hr? Kill me now.

Where I thought the novel came up a bit short was the characterization. You get a pretty strong sense of Mark’s personality – as you’d expect, since you’re basically reading his thoughts (via the log entries) for most of the book – but the other five astronauts and the various NASA staff were less well defined and the dialogue between them was very basic and functional at best. However, this isn’t exactly an unusual complaint with hard sci-fi novels, and I thought the great pacing and fascinating survival story made up for it.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

I definitely plan to see the movie, which is scheduled to be released October 2, 21015, and am now really looking forward to it. Here is the official trailer:

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Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue Book Review

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Review:

William Stolzenburg’s Where the Wild Things Were was one of my favorite non-fiction reads in recent years, and Stolzenburg became an instant favorite author. I was really excited when I heard he’d published a new book and checked it out immediately.

Like Where the Wild Things Were, Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue was extremely well-written, absorbing, and eye-opening. However, I’m not going to downplay it: it is also an absolutely gut-wrenching litany of destruction. There were several points where I had to put the book down for awhile, because I just couldn’t take it anymore. So much senseless slaughter, so many unique and fascinating species lost forever.

As an antidote to the heartbreak, Stolzenburg shares amazing and inspirational stories about the incredible heroics performed by conservationists like Richard Treacy Henry  in an attempt to rescue the survivors, as well as discussions of modern scientifically-led efforts to remove invasive predators and restore sensitive habitats for birds and other wildlife in New Zealand, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands, among others. In particular, he focuses on efforts to save the Kakapo, a large flightless green parrot from New Zealand. Here’s a clip of the bird itself:

It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in wildlife conservation, ecology, or natural history. It also makes a good companion read for Quamman’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction.

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My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

 

The Descent of Woman Book Review

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Review:

I read The Descent of Woman for the first time during my brief but intense trashy novel phase when I was about 13, mainly because it talked so much about sex. 

Needless to say, it’s not a trashy novel, but rather a fascinating study of human evolution. As an adult, I’ve looked more into the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, and from what I’ve found, it seems to be mostly bunk. However, The Descent of Woman is such a well written, entertaining (often laugh-out-loud funny), and thought-provoking book that it’s remained one of my favorites despite its dubious scientific credentials. 

Additionally, I think that even if the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis itself is wrong, there is value in Morgan’s absolute evisceration of the sexism that pervaded popular scientific discussion of human evolution at the time, and which unfortunately still rears its ugly head from time to time today.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators Book Review

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Review:

Veteran science writer William Stolzenburg’s first book Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators is a passionate call for large predator conservation.

Stolzenburg’s enthusiasm for his topic is infectious, and aided by a talent for clearly explaining the complicated relations between predator and prey.

The book begins with a short disclosure of the author’s biases, then launches into a history of scientific research into the ecological effects of the predator-prey relationship, in the course of which Stolzenburg delivers an extremely convincing case that predators are not only part of biodiversity, but actually necessary to maintaining it.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

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Review:

Want to read

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of one of the best popular science books on climate change, and with this book, she tackles the subject of extinction. Specifically, the belief of many scientists that Earth is currently undergoing its sixth mass extinction event as a result of human activities such as habitat destruction, overhunting, and anthropogenic climate change.

Chasing Ice

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Review:

Want to watch

Lots of rave reviews for this documentary about a film crew’s efforts to document melting glaciers around the world.

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4M Crystal Mining Kit

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Review:

An enjoyable one time project for budding young geologists or rock collectors. We had a fun few hours (spread out over several days)  excavating the crystals, which are pretty, colorful, and decent-sized. My daughter now keeps them in the included leather pouch and considers them her “treasures.”

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Elenco Electronic Snap Circuits SC-300

Review:

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This was a Christmas gift for my 7 year old daughter from my brother-in-law, a physicist. It was one of his favorite toys growing up and according to his mother, he got quite creative with it!

So far, we have mainly followed the included directions (though with occasional “what would happen if we put this here instead?” experimentation) and have found almost all of them clear and straightforward enough for her to follow on her own without adult assistance. Replacing wires with snaps was a brilliant idea- the snaps make the process of building and dismantling circuits extremely simple and easy, which helps reduce frustration (especially for young beginners like my daughter) without dumbing down the circuits themselves. (Some should be plenty sophisticated enough to keep a high schooler’s interest.) So far, her favorite of the 300 different circuits included in the instructions is one that launches a plastic fan into the air like a flying saucer, and mine is the AM radio (yes, it really works!)

I highly recommend this kit for children who enjoy building projects or have an interest in science.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction Book Review

Review:

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Despite being fascinated by the topic and partial to the author (who’s one of the best science writers working today, in my opinion), it took me years to actually sit down and read The Song of the Dodo because it’s well over 600 pages (not counting footnotes) – dauntingly long for a mom of young kids. However, I finally managed it!

Quamman is able to successfully make the sometimes quite technical subject of island biogeography both accessible and fascinating. The study of island biogeography – which is essentially studying what lives where, and why, with particular attention to islands – has been critical to developing our understanding of the processes of both evolution and extinction. The Song of the Dodo includes a long and fascinating account of the early history of evolutionary science, with a focus on the life and travels of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace is famous to most people as the guy who came up with the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin and almost got credit for it, but he played a larger role than Darwin in the early development of the study of island biogeography.

Island biogeography is important to evolutionary science not only because of the incredible profusion of unique and bizarre creatures on the world’s remote islands, but also because it was the study of patterns of distribution of island flora and fauna that demonstrated most plainly to Darwin, Wallace, and other evolutionary biologists both past and present that if God had a hand in evolution (as the theory of special creation, the dominant theory in Darwin’s time, assumed He did), He followed some very strict rules in determining the distribution of island species… rules that just happened to be indistinguishable from what you would expect to find from a close study of the dispersion ability of different species.

For example, islands tend to have a lot of birds, which can fly or be blown across stretches of open ocean, but few amphibians, whose moist skin makes them sensitive to saltwater and incapable of surviving extended ocean voyages. Many of the most remote volcanic islands, such as Hawaii or the Galapagos, have no native amphibians at all. Observations like these led to Wallace’s deduction that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species” – an insight which seems like simple common sense today, but which was a game-changing flash of genius at the time it was made.

Islands have also been critical to our understanding of extinction, and here is where island biogeography becomes important not just to the history of science and the residents of islands, but to the entire world. Human activities are increasingly carving up mainland wilderness into patches of habitat that are, in many cases, isolated as effectively from other patches of wilderness as the remotest volcanic island is from the shore. And because island ecosystems tend to have higher rates of extinction than mainland ecosystems, we can study island extinction patterns to learn what is in store for species trapped in isolated refuges on the mainland. (Spoiler: extinction, frequently.)

Quamman unfurls all these points with literary style and copious use of real world examples, collected in his extensive travels and interviews with working scientists on islands both literal and de facto. My only complaint about the book is his fondness for extended digressions. They are generally as fascinating as everything else (watching komodos, trying to find a thylacine, sharing the story of an extraordinary teenage naturalist from Madagascar and his work with lemurs), but it leads to a lot of hopping around in space and time, which lends the book a somewhat disorganized feel at times.

I also wonder if, with a tighter narrative, there might have been more room for discussion of the practical applications of island biogeography, which didn’t get much attention in Quamman’s book. For example, wildlife managers use insights from island biogeographers about how to maintain viable populations in the face of human encroachment to develop conservation corridors that allow species to safely travel between isolated patches of habitat. Fortunately, corridors and other topics in practical conservation ecology are discussed at length in books such as Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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