Ah, we humans, what have we wrought? Essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman (author of A Natural History of the Senses, The Zookeeper’s Wife and many other books) tackles this musing—and not merely rhetorical—question in The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, examining what geologists are calling our current epoch, the Anthropocene, or Human Age.
Upon hearing that Randall Munroe, NASA roboticist turned webcomic all-star, is writing a collection of “What If?” columns, a number of you will immediately make plans to buy the book. Don’t worry, you’ll love it. But this review is for the rest of you, who are curious if a bit confused.
Nature writer Nick Jans first spotted the large tracks of a wolf while cross-country skiing near his home in Juneau, Alaska, in December 2003. Two days later, while relaxing in his hot tub, he caught a glimpse of the animal itself. Nick raced out to see him, and soon he and his wife, Sherrie, became infatuated with the beautiful black wolf.
While teaching a group of volunteers about marine stewardship one morning, researcher Ken Balcomb was confronted with a crisis the likes of which he'd never seen: an inexplicable mass stranding of beaked whales. While racing up and down the Bahamas coastline, trying to save lives or at least preserve specimens for autopsy, he struggled to comprehend what could have caused the whales such trauma. When the U.S. Navy's sonar program was implicated, Balcomb was torn; proud of his own service record, he nonetheless broke confidentiality about Navy practices to try and save the lives of whales. Joining forces with environmental lawyer Joel Reynolds, the two face off against a government in the throes of a national security panic in War of the Whales.
Seven out of 12 young men on the Wilcox Expedition perished on the mountain during the storm. Many elements—inexperience, illness, personality conflict—may have played a role in the overall situation, but as Hall demonstrates, the ultimate factor was environmental. No one could have survived the 100 mile-per-hour winds strafing the upper limits of the mountain for a week.
Martin Windrow never intended to require visitors to his London flat to don protective headgear, but that’s what happened. He had to protect his guests from the eight long talons of Mumble, the tawny owl who lived in his small, urban apartment. All surfaces had to be covered with either plastic or newspaper to protect them from Mumble’s unpredictable and very messy emissions. How could cohabitating with such a creature be worth these high costs?
If you want a gut-level understanding of why preservation of the Earth’s biodiversity is vital to the survival of our own species, Edward O. Wilson’s new book, A Window on Eternity, is an excellent place to start.
Because he seldom cites specific dates or alludes to what’s happening in the outside world as he’s prowling through the jungle in Peru, Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon has a breathless, dream-like quality—a tone one might find in the journals of a relentlessly eager and factually retentive Boy Scout.
Few writers engage readers in thinking about the meaning of scientific discoveries as well as Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Kolbert’s enviable talents, her wit and intelligence, the clarity of her prose, are on full display in The Sixth Extinction, a fascinating and alarming book that examines mass extinctions of life forms, past and present.
The more we learn about the human brain, it seems, the less we know for sure. In the 50 years he's focused on it, Dutch neuroscientist D.F. Swaab has studied the brain at every stage of being. We Are Our Brains is a “neurobiography” of the brain, but it reads more like a gazetteer—you can start anywhere and be assured of finding something interesting.