Great Thoughts – Great Authors

We are in the midst of steamrolling scientific discovery. Most new ideas and solutions are buried in journals specific to the topic. But we are most fortunate to live in a time when great authors translate and explain the wonders of natural history and evolution for us. Anecdotes, histories, summaries, and natural history biographies are made clear and understandable by a group of modern authors. People like Bill Bryson, EO Wilson, Sean Carroll, Nick Lane, Richard Holmes, Neil Shubin, and Jared Diamond. Over the next couple blog entries I will add to that list and make some suggestions as to the books you should read immediately; and others that are most enjoyable and entertaining but not a deep and ingrained part of modern biological thinking. There are science books and nature books, educational books and entertaining books; it is quite wonderful to have those genres rolled into readable and understandable page (or screens) by thoughtful and readable authors.

I met Bill Bryson once back when we were both young. I was looking at birds and staying at a remote southeast Arizona ranch and he was ensconced in a house along the dirt track by which I occasionally traveled to town. His house mates were coatimundi and he was whetting his natural history teeth. I would wave, we never talked. In the following forty years or so he has entertained and educated us by the millions. The book shown above should be required reading for all people. It is, in fact, a readable history of just about everything. Continuity is the key to understanding science and the world as nothing happens in a vacuum. After this book will come books imbued with wit and wonder on topics as varied as traveling in Australia, walking in the woods, or following the all-encompassing aura of the British Royal Society. Bryson should be in every home or in every iPad, tablet or Kindle.
I had the pleasure and honor of working with Peter Matthiessen one time. I gave a presentation in which I mentioned David Quammen as an author that people should seek out. Matthiessen came up to me afterward and as we chatted he said that Quammen was his current favorite nature author. In a way I was pleased to share this relationship with an author as respected at Mathiessen but then I realized that we liked Quammen because he was good. David Quammen makes science enjoyable. He explains things with examples we can relate to. He researches topics and reports back from a position of knowledge. These days we get so much news presented to us after (only) cursory research. Books by writers who understand, relate, and present are such a joy to read.
Ed Wilson is a modern treasure. Not only as an author but as a human sensitive to the cultural and natural worlds within which he loves. His books are many and varied. He adds to his understaning daily and is willing to change perceptions and explain himself. He started biodiversity programs in which censuses and compilations of flora and fauna have now been conducted worldwide. Rather than a bio, here are some book titles: Sociobiology, Letters to a Young Scientist, On Human Nature, Ants, The Diversity of Life, Naturalist, Biophilia, Anthill, Nature Revealed, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He may be a bit of a challenge to wade through but science has followed his lead for decades.
Nick Lane presents the ten innovations of life. The earth was once a large lifeless chunk of stuff. Over time things arrived here (perhaps things like water and metals). Once the earth’s mass was sufficient for the core to melt and heat the heat passed outward through weak spots in the earth’s surface. Life followed; hundreds of millions of years later most likely. but it followed. Over the last several billion years life has changed from active molecules to tissue-like creatures and on to complex organisms. These organisms can (now) grow, reproduce, maintain body temperature, see, think, and ultimately die. This is what makes the world go round or at least the fauna of the world. Each of the ten chapters follows a phase of organism-development and shows how and why it is important.
This is one of the top ten science books ever written – really. You drop back to an era when there was no electricity, telephones, GPS, maps, and yet was a time of great exploration and curiosity. This book follows the life of John Harrison as he worked to solve the longitude problem. The travelers needed timepieces so they could figure their location and this book discusses harrison’s efforts amid the politics of the era and within the science community. Compelling reading.
There are many books on the birth of science and scientific thinking. Many of these books refer to the Royal Society and the revolution in cultural thought that blossomed in the 18th and 19th century. As the title suggests the society had the (still happening!) dilemma that science was explaining and replacing ideas that were traditional and deeply imbued. Royalty and religion were proving to be creations of culture on of god. Things were confusing and challenging as the origin of cultural mores were explained by scientific explanations. The heavens, the earth’s movements, the oceans activities as well as those of gases, liquids, and solids were shown to be predictable and mechanistic not the actions of an unknowable force. Wonderfully written and very appropriate to today’s conundrums. 
I didn’t include any of Charles Darwin’s writing in this first page. he certainly deserved to be included but I think he may get a separate page; one of his own. There are many who can speak to evolutionary processes but on on the easiest reading and most explanatory is Sean Carroll. His books are very up to date and are often taken from a flowing stream of information. This is a threat to authors as they may see changes in the flow and thus the written word is in need of alteration. Despite this, Carroll writes of modern genetic thought in The Making of the Fittest and from DNA to Diversity. In each case the reader is brought up to date and provided a platform from which to dive into further books with more current information It is hard to write about a subject that is roaring along; like DNA and molecular research. But Sean Carroll does it as well as anyone. Remarkable Creatures is a wonderfully readable book about some of natures most interesting creations.

Saving The Best For Last —-
If I won the lottery I would buy a million copies and hand them out on street corners. 
This is the story I wanted to live when, as a kid, I read National Geographic many years ago. Remote exploration determined by pieces of previously ignored evidence, a challenging concept within evolutionary science, physical and financial challenges that are probably common to all research, and a personal determination that moved the idea (and hope) forward; all come together to provide evidence of our ancient lineage. The flow of our arteries, veins, nerves, and tendons (and the shape of bones and so much more) were not invented solely for the human body. We are a rather awkward upright creature with structures and patterns that work best if we were a different shape — well we once were a different shape. This is a great book – plain and simple. Read it!!

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