The holiday season is not only a good time for a festival of lights, but also a good time to feast on enlightenment. These new books—which offer exciting perspectives on subjects ranging from birds to the brain—would make excellent gifts for nature lovers or scientifically minded readers.

Science through the ages
A one-volume reference simply entitled Science may sound like a children’s book—grownup books are usually about something a bit more specific—but this 512-page tome is no lightweight: it really is about science, as in the whole history of the subject from prehistory to the present. Science: The Definitive Visual Guide, edited by Adam Hart-Davis, presents the grand sweep of scientific discovery era by era, beginning each section with an introduction and timeline and pulling out key concepts, Eureka moments, important people, applications and consequences. The “visual” part of the title is achieved in typical DK style, which means stunning photos, illustrations, charts, tables and the like in great quantity and quality. Especially handy are the before-and-after sections on particular subjects; for example, the section on steam power is flanked by marginalia outlining power sources in use before the invention of the steam engine and power sources that succeeded it, like internal combustion and electricity. After the chronological survey comes a practical reference section with quick facts about astronomy and space, earth sciences, biology, chemistry, physics and math.

When nature calls
Even the most casual birdwatcher would be tickled to receive Laura Erickson’s Bird Watching Answer Book: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy Birds in Your Backyard and Beyond. The author has fielded many a question through her birding blog, her public radio program (“For the Birds”) and her previous book (101 Ways to Help Birds), and if this wasn’t street cred enough, she’s also enlisted the aid of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Although the guide is organized by categories like feeding, vocalization, bird problems (when starlings move in, for example), nesting, migration and the concisely titled “how birds work,” it is still surprisingly fun to ignore the subject headings and start reading at a random page. Should you heat a birdbath in winter? How often should you clean your feeder? What should you do when you find an injured bird? Can birds sleep during flight? Is there anything good about pigeons? This friendly and practical book answers a wide range of the most common (and compelling) questions.

Another bird expert, David Allen Sibley, author of the best-selling reference The Sibley Guide to Birds, has branched out into a different subject with The Sibley Guide to Trees. Although the new direction may surprise some fans, Sibley has been working on the book for seven years, having long ago learned to appreciate the intimate link between bird and tree. The introduction is an admirable crash course in the basics of tree identification, taxonomy and types of leaves, flowers, fruit, twigs, buds and bark. It also includes notable advice to those just getting started, such as the invitation to employ pattern-recognition skills and to “practice observing,” two simple yet rather profound methods that can make recognizing species easier and more “natural.” The tree identification section is, of course, the heartwood of the guide, and this is where Sibley’s characteristically precise artwork shines. Details are rendered far clearer in his paintings than in photographic field guides, and the types of variations—in leaf, color, fruit, habit, etc.—are more apparent. Over 600 trees are presented in taxonomical groups with all related species together, a system which he believes to be key in developing a “deeper understanding” of trees and the landscape around us.

Billions and billions
At a time when some schools are considering adding Creationism to their curricula, it may be an opportune moment to take stock of the genuine miracle of the living universe without the intrusion of either theology or ideology. Evolution: The Story of Life, by Douglas Palmer, illustrated by Peter Barrett, gives readers just such a reference. The book’s main contribution is its timeline: 3.5 billion years of life on Earth presented in 100 pictorial “site reconstructions.” The consistent double-page layouts make it easier for readers to compare and contrast different eras, while smaller boxes below the main frame give concise summaries and identifications. At first the illustrations may seem a bit old-fashioned and “textbook,” but then again, having meticulous hand-painted panoramas in this digital age is a treat. Evolution was published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.

Mind games
Not often are we able to read a book that shows how we are able to read a book in the first place, but The Human Brain Book  shows exactly that and so much more. Rita Carver, author of the popular Mapping the Mind and Consciousness, makes the latest developments in neuroscience accessible to the average curious reader, despite the overwhelming amount and scope of material presented. This is due in part to DK’s visual format—thousands of illustrations, photographs and specially commissioned brain scans—and the presiding influence of Carter’s ability to communicate complex information with the finesse of a TV broadcaster (her former occupation). After a pictorial timeline of brain exploration and a quick journey through the brain itself, chapters cover brain anatomy, the senses, movement, emotions, language, memory, thinking, consciousness, development, disorders and more. Answers large and small are everywhere: why it isn’t safe to drive and talk on a cell phone at the same time, what consciousness is, how memory works (or doesn’t), what constitutes intelligence, what happens when we dream, how autism spectrum disorders “look” on brain scans and, on a much lighter note, what might be the six worst smells in the world. The book includes an interactive DVD of brain areas and processes. The Human Brain Book promises to be a stellar family reference.

Icy wonders
This enthralling new book of oversized photographs is for all of us who can’t seem to keep straight the North Pole from the South—and which animals belong to each. But Paul Nicklen’s Polar Obsession actually has far higher aspirations: the photojournalist author hopes his stunner of a book wakes us all to the endangered Antarctic and Arctic ecosystems. Polar ice is melting faster than scientific models ever predicted and may, in fact, be entirely gone within five to 20 years. Nicklen’s photographs of this threatened land- and seascape are utterly amazing. He exposes a world none of us ever sees: we are face to face with a bowhead whale, a newborn walrus pup, the very pupil of the eye of a macaroni penguin. Text is spare, informative and thrilling: his adventures in the below-freezing waters are as fascinating to read as they are to view. Not to be missed are the close-ups of an enormous leopard seal that tries (unsuccessfully) to feed the photographer a penguin underwater. A more gorgeous and compelling invitation to conservation efforts is difficult to imagine.

comments powered by Disqus