How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to Be Forever
by Jack Horner and James Gorman. Dutton, 2009
A more accurate title would be How to Genetically Modify a Chicken. But How to Build a Dinosaur is definitely catchier—and harmless. The subtitle is less sanguine. Extinction, certainly of really ancient creatures, is forever, as the authors themselves make clear.
But back to that chicken. Horner, a well-known paleontologist (his co-author is a writer for the New York Times), confides that he has kept a chicken skeleton at hand wherever he has worked, because it looks like a dinosaur. “Sometimes,” he writes, “I look at it and turn it ... and think, if I could just grow these bones a little different, tilt this one way, that another, I’d have a dinosaur.” That skeleton started out as an embryo, he reasons, so why couldn’t we biochemically nudge a chicken embryo this way and that, “until what hatched was not a chicken but a small dinosaur, with teeth, forearms with claws, and a tail?” The book describes how this might be done—someday.
Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God
by Amos Nur, with Dawn Burgess. Princeton University Press, 2008
The outsider may be surprised to learn that earth scientists and archaeologists disagree strongly about what caused the destruction of ancient civilizations. Archaeologists hold that human events—war in particular—crushed these societies; earth scientists lean toward natural causes—earthquakes in particular. Stanford University geophysicist Nur offers detailed evidence for the controversial earthquake theory. Troy, Jericho, Knossos, Mycenae, Armageddon, Teotihuacán and Petra, he argues, were all located along fault lines or in regions prone to earthquakes. He corroborates this scientific evidence with written records from the Bible, the Iliad and other documents that describe events that could have been earthquakes.
Photographs by Karl Ammann. Text by Dale Peterson. University of California Press, 2009
This gorgeous book, which includes the natural history and conservation status of African elephants and recent surprising discoveries of field scientists, will convince you that the elephant is one of nature’s greatest and most original works. As Peterson writes in his introduction:
“Good photography depends only partly on the artistic skill of the photographer. It also surely depends on the artistic value of the subject. We look at this collection of elephant reflections not simply to admire the talent and skill of Karl Ammann but also, and even more fully, to reflect on the drama and glamour and mystery of real elephants.”
For a slideshow of photographs from the book, go to www.ScientificAmerican.com/elephant-reflections
NOTABLE BOOKS: Science and Literature
Sex in an Age of Technological Reproduction: ICSI and Taboos
by Carl Djerassi. University of Wisconsin Press, 2008
Written by one of the inventors of oral contraceptives, these two plays dramatize the social transformations and controversies created by advances in reproductive technology.
Quantum Lyrics: Poems
by A. Van Jordan. W. W. Norton, 2009
Physicists—most often Einstein—as well as physics itself inhabit these poems.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
by David Eagleman. Pantheon, 2009
A neuroscientist presents in novelistic vignettes a variety of possibilities for the world that comes after death.
Note: This article was originally published with the title, "Reviews".