Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
Long before mammoths were described by science, wild debates raged over their hulking fossils. From classical Greece to China, claims that they were dragons' teeth or giants' bones sprang up. As John McKay vividly relates, the scientific saga began in the seventeenth century, when the evocative remains became pivotal to the evolution of vertebrate palaeontology. Among the turning points, he shows, was Siberian tribesman Ossip Shumachov's discovery of a near-complete mammoth carcass around 1800 — later reconstructed, in a stupendous feat of guesswork, by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius.
It may be just another yellow dwarf, but to us Earthlings the Sun is the undoubted star of celestial objects. Astrophysicist Leon Golub and astronomer Jay Pasachoff elucidate all things solar in this scientific primer. They anatomize sunspots by way of US astronomer George Ellery Hale, who pioneered their observation with his 1889 invention of the spectroheliograph. They explore helioseismology, which allows us to peer inside the Sun; look at chromosphere and corona; and proffer pointers on safe amateur observation. Beautifully illustrated, history-rich and bang up to date.
Plague-ridden and half-destroyed by fire, late-seventeenth-century London was also a scientific hotbed. Presiding over it for more than two decades was Restoration monarch Charles II. Don Jordan's history captures the shifts he engineered in trade and culture, and his great decision — as one eager to support astronomy and medicine — to establish the Royal Society. Under its aegis, luminaries such as Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke parsed nature, from the “springiness” of air to the rotation of Mars, in the process doing much to establish the physical and intellectual London of today.
As astronomy writer Bob Berman notes in this nimble history of radiation, the idea of invisible light has an oxymoronic flavour. Yet without that spectrum, the Universe would be unimaginable and much of modern technology impossible. His roll call of the brilliant scientists who unpeeled this world include Johann Ritter, Heinrich Hertz and William Herschel, who discovered ultraviolet, radio and infrared waves, respectively. There is plenty, too, on mundane exposure, from the potassium-40 in bananas to the odd mash-up in 'cosmic rays', which includes helium nuclei, protons and antimatter.
Ecologist Chris Thomas joins the throng calling for a step change in responses to our radically altered planetary environment. A veteran of the field from Borneo to Ethiopia and an evolutionary biologist, he offers a two-fold argument. First, conservation of as many species as possible is key, to “fuel future dynamism”. Second, world biota are resilient, even in the recut jigsaw of altered habitats. As a corrective to doom-mongering, this is no litany of techno-fixes or cherry-picked examples, but may teeter on too many variables.