Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

by Eric W. Sanderson. Illustrations by Markley Boyer. Abrams, 2009

Using a detailed map created by the British army in about 1782, Sanderson, a landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, re-creates Manhattan as it would have looked when Henry Hudson first saw it in 1609 (left side of image). The goal is not to return today’s Manhattan (right side of image) to its primeval state but to have some fun and to see what vision of the future might work for the metropolis.

“... we can literally reconstruct the view out of any office building or apartment in Manhattan as it appeared four hundred years ago. Using computer techniques borrowed from the moviemakers, we place trees and streams according to scientific probability distributions, true to the ecology and the landscape, and faithful to the geography of the city, block by block, street by street. These images show us nature in all her beauty, complexity, and loveliness at a time before streets and blocks and tall buildings, before the human footprint lay so heavily on Manhattan and the world.”

Einstein’s Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe
by Evalyn Gates. W. W. Norton, 2009
Not so long ago, Gates begins, astrophysicists, thrilled with bigger and better telescopes, “settled in to appreciate the unprecedented clarity of their view of the cosmos, only to find that their new instruments revealed a Universe that didn’t act at all the way it was supposed to.” Instead their observations insisted that the stars and galaxies we see are only a small part of the matter that exists. The remainder, composed of new kinds of particles called dark matter and the even stranger dark energy, is invisible to their telescopes.

Fortunately, as Gates (an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago) details, scientists can use space itself as a telescope to search for dark matter and dark energy. According to Einstein, mass of any kind warps space: just as every planet and star creates a “dimple” in space, so dark matter also deforms the space around it. This warping acts as a gravitational lens—the “telescope” of the book’s title—to bend and deflect light in the same way that lenses made of glass or plastic do. Using gravitational lensing, scientists have already discovered extrasolar planets and black holes and have reconstructed the collision of two giant clusters of galaxies. Researchers now have the potential, Gates maintains, to unveil dark matter and dark energy and to find new clues to the mystery of what the universe is made of.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Harvard University Press, 2009
More than a million years ago, somewhere in Africa, a group of apes began to rear their young differently. Unlike almost all other primates, they were willing to let others share in the care of infants. The reasons for this innovation are lost in the ancient past, but according to well-known anthropologist Hrdy, it was crucial that these mothers had related—and therefore trusted—females nearby and that the helpers provided food as well as care. Out of this “communal care,” she argues, grew the human capacity for understanding one another: mothers and others teach us who will care and who will not. Beginning with her opening conceit of apes on an airplane (you wouldn’t want to be on this flight) and continuing through her informed insights into the behavior of other species, Hrdy’s reasoning is fascinating to follow.

Readers interested in this topic might also want to look at two other books just out: On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and The 10,000 Year Explosion, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (Basic Books).