Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
The Sting of the Wild
By Justin O. Schmidt
Entomologist Justin Schmidt takes an immersive approach to his work. Notching up the stings of 83 insect species, he ranks them on a pain index from 'ethereal' to 'satanic'. His low-down on sting biochemistry and physiology is relentlessly zestful, even as he recounts the swelling, burning consequences of his curiosity. We also meet perpetrators such as the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata), equipped with a fearsome sting and chemical warnings smelling of burnt garlic; and the tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis spp.), whose scream-inducing jab delivers mysteriously non-toxic venom.
Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting
By Thomas D. Seeley
Beekeeping is modish. But as melittologist Thomas Seeley reveals in this captivating study, there is another, uniquely thrilling window on Apis mellifera: the sport and science of 'hunting' for wild-bee trees. Seeley's passion for the social insects blazes as he quotes historical accounts by Henry David Thoreau and describes the intricacies of the chase, from baiting with anise-scented sugar syrup to patiently amassing location data. And he delivers the timely reminder that wild honeybee colonies with genetic resilience are key in an era of widespread colony collapse.
Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present
By Richard S. Newman
In this chronicle of a notorious US environmental crisis, historian Richard Newman focuses on how community activism forced policy change. In 1978, a health emergency was declared at Love Canal, a suburb of Niagara Falls, New York, when clusters of birth defects and other health issues were discovered — a legacy of chemicals leaching from a 20,000-tonne toxic-waste dump. Protests over the extent and impact of contamination helped to spur the 1980 'Superfund' federal statute that enabled the clean-up of hazardous-waste sites. Newman stresses, however, that the legal and medical saga is not over.
The Physics of Life: The Evolution of Everything
By Adrian Bejan
Energy scientist Adrian Bejan defines life as freely evolving movement in both the inanimate and animate worlds — from a lightning strike to a sprouting seed. This organizational phenomenon is, he argues, underpinned by a principle of physics: “constructal law”, which holds that “power and dissipation conspire to facilitate all movement on earth, animate and inanimate, animal, human, and machine”. Bejan's treatise crackles with ideas, but seeing analogous patterns in river systems, the spread of ideas and the shift to sustainability can seem a stretch in places.
Jellyfish: A Natural History
By Lisa-Ann Gershwin
One resembles an exquisitely ruffled and pleated confection of pale silk chiffon; another, a tangle of bioluminescent necklaces cascading from a bauble. Both marine drifters (Desmonema glaciale and Physalia) feature in jellyfish expert Lisa-Ann Gershwin's absorbing coffee-table book on this transparent group with three evolutionary lineages. Succinct science is intercut with surreal portraiture — from the twinkling Santa's hat jellyfish (Periphylla periphylla) to the delicate blue by-the-wind sailor (Velella velella).