Capsule Reviews

Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality
by Hannah Holmes
Random House (To be published February 22, 2011)

Fast becoming adept at probing the science behind being human, science writer Hannah Holmes, author of 2009’s The Well-Dressed Ape, is at it again with Quirk. This time around Holmes dissects human personality into five distinct components: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. She calls them “dials…each set to different temperatures,” and proceeds to slice each component further into separate facets (for example, neuroticism breaks down into anxiety and depression, extraversion into impulsiveness, activeness, cheerfulness, and assertiveness, and so on).

Holmes covers the evolution of each of these facets and takes the reader on a tour of world-class laboratories studying some of these qualities in mice, always with an eye toward tying it back into understanding the peculiarities of human personality.

The reader can even take brief...

Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution
by Iain McCalman
W.W. Norton & Company (Published November 15, 2010)

Originally published in August 2009, during the year-long celebration of Charles Darwin (born in 1809), and in paperback late last year, Darwin’s Armada tells the swashbuckling story behind the father of evolution’s earthshaking theory. University of Sydney historian Iain McCalman departs from the standard Darwinian plot line, instead introducing the reader to Darwin’s supporting cast—botanist Joseph Hooker, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, and biologist Thomas Huxley—and detailing their scientific ocean-bound peregrinations to far-flung locales, where their observations led them to support the controversial notion of evolution through natural selection. The portrait of Darwin and his struggle for scientific legitimacy that emerges is decidedly different from that of the reclusive Victorian intellectual to whom you may be accustomed.

By taking the history of evolutionary theory off of the page and setting it afloat on high-seas swimming with adventure and discovery, McCalman sets himself and his book apart from the pack.

The Death & Life of Monterey Bay: A Story of Revival
by Stephen R. Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka
Island Press (Published November 12, 2010)

Not since John Steinbeck immortalized California’s Monterey Bay in the deathless prose of Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat has a book brought the area and its delicate struggle to survive decades of perturbation so vividly to life. In The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, marine biologists Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka review the history of the dynamic area from its exploration by Spanish explorers to the erection of the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Palumbi and Sotka’s story unfolds as the bay’s natural riches are plundered by successive waves of industry—otter-fur harvesting, whaling, and abalone fishing—all through the prism of marine ecology. But rather than recounting a one-sided story of gloom and doom, the authors also celebrate the conservationists who saved Monterey Bay from the ravages of humankind. They even devote a chapter to ecologist Ed Ricketts, Steinbeck’s real-life friend and muse, who saw firsthand the rise and fall of the area’s famed canneries. As rich with history as it is with ecology, this book offers hope that even heavily abused landscapes can retain their natural splendor, given time and the efforts of concerned citizens.

Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity
by Ian Glynn
Oxford University Press, USA (Published May 6, 2010)

Scientific elegance, usually the purview of astrophysicists and mathematicians, gets the full treatment in this book by Ian Glynn, professor emeritus of physiology at Cambridge University. Glynn assembles his hit list of elegant explanations, experiments, and theories, from Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary movement and Sir Isaac Newton’s pillars of physics to Michael Faraday’s studies on electricity and Thomas Young’s explanations of the nature of light.

But Glynn is at his best when he traverses the disciplines to explore the scientific beauty studding his own field of endeavor, the life sciences. By telling engaging stories—like the one of 17th century Dutch physician Jan Swammerdam, who demonstrated the nature of nerve function using frog muscles mounted inside glass vessels, or how German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz and University College London neurologist Semir Zeki helped piece together the workings of the human brain—Glynn highlights the importance of concise and graceful thinking in science and discovery. The book reaches its climax when Glynn considers the story of Watson and Crick’s double helix work, which the author characterizes as “the happy combination of elegant investigations leading to important and elegant results.”

In Elegance, Glynn traces not only the most elegant experiments, but the lives and personalities behind them, to remind us that grace and simplicity are essential qualities of meaningful and boundary-stretching science.

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