by Alison Gopnik
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009 (($25))

Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that far from being irrational and limited in their ability to think, babies are smarter, more imaginative and more conscious than adults. Along the way, she examines such fascinating topics as why children pretend, how they discover the truth, the origins of love and morality, and how early life shapes later life. Understanding how children think can help adults become better parents—another subject Gopnik explores.

Writer Alwyn Scarth traces the violent history of Mount Vesuvius—from its destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79 to its most recent eruption in 1944. What might the future hold for this, the most dangerous volcano in all of Europe? Scarth discusses the warning signs of an eruption and considers current contingency plans for the 600,000 people who live in the 236-square-kilometer area around the summit of this ferocious force of nature.

Biologist and journalist Carol Kaesuk Yoon explores humanity's longstanding obsession with naming living things. Here she describes how the modest barnacle—which 16th-century scholars believed came from plants known as “Barnakle Trees” and themselves concealed miniature geese called barnacle geese—tricked even 18th-century father of systematic classification Carl Linnaeus.

“Picture a barnacle. You probably envision something hard, white, salt-encrusted, sharp, and stuck onto something else, like a boat bottom. And though they seem more rocklike than lifelike at first glance, at second glance they may begin to remind you of a limpet perhaps, or a mussel, or some other sea creature with a formidable hard outer shell, softer more vulnerable parts tucked inside, and zero mobility. The barnacle, most people would say, belongs with what are clearly its like kind, the clams, snails and so on; that is, it would appear to be a mollusk. And this is exactly how Linnaeus ordered it.

“... It was the group he called ‘The Worms.’ So the barnacles fell in, at the master's hand, as they would likely have at any one of ours, with the mollusks. And there barnacles remained, more or less, for another half century or so.

“Not that anyone was terribly worried about them. Compared with trumpeting elephants or towering oak trees, barnacles were just kind of hard for naturalists to get worked up about. If there were a living creature whose understanding would shake the very foundations of the ordering of life, the barnacle seems the least likely candidate. But there was much more to those tiny shuttered creatures than anyone suspected.”