Pruners in Hand

Scope Correspondent

A review of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt and Co, 2014
336 pages

Plectostoma sciaphilum was always hard to find. The pea-sized microsnail lived only in one place, atop a limestone hill in Eastern Malaysia. It spent its days chewing on leaf litter and toting around a shell that, in photos, resembles a soft-serve ice cream cone lit from the inside. Photos are all we have, because P. sciaphilum is gone now—the last of its kind was recently blasted to smithereens, along with the hill it lived on, by a cement conglomerate intent on the limestone within. Full Review »

Assessing the Cosmic Wilderness

Scope Correspondent

A Review of Our Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark

Knopf, 2014

432 pages


The book opens with a chiller: “A second later, I died.” What follows is not a murder mystery being narrated by the deceased victim, but a whirlwind explanation of cosmology, quantum physics, and theoretical evidence for the idea of multiple universes. Welcome to the world of Max Tegmark, professor of theoretical physics at MIT, whose brain roams across the entire history of human scientific inquiry into the ultimate question: what is reality?

Our Mathematical Universe is Tegmark’s first book-length project, following his publication of over 200 academic papers, numerous essays for popular science outlets, and appearances in TV and radio documentaries. While a book on such a broad, esoteric topic could easily veer off-track into Ph.D. jargon, Tegmark keeps his expansive, quirky voice focused, transitioning smoothly between topics and helping bring the average Joe impressively close to understanding his world with, ironically, as little reliance on math as possible. Full Review »

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Scope Correspondent

A review of Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, by Virginia Morell

Crown, 2013

304 pages


One fateful day in March 1838, a twenty-nine-year-old Charles Darwin met a female named Jenny. Observing her in her exhibit in the London Zoological Garden, Darwin noted that Jenny, a young orangutan recently acquired by the zoo, “kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child” when a keeper teased her with an apple. Having never met an ape face to face before, Darwin wrote furiously and excitedly in his notebooks, speculating on the thoughts and feelings of Jenny the orangutan over multiple visits. “Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication,” Darwin wrote, “hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence when spoken (to); as if it understands every word said—see its affection—to those it knew—see its passion & rage, sulkiness, & very actions of despair.” Darwin found such instances enough to convince him that animals (the “higher” ones, at least) are intelligent, that they can feel pain, jealousy, happiness, and boredom.

But Darwin had been criticized for using stories like Jenny’s as scientific evidence. They are anthropomorphic, other scientists said; they bestow non-human animals with human emotions that we cannot prove they feel. This anti-animal-mind mindset ruled psychological science for decades, and its grasp is still felt today. Full Review »

A Science Book that’s Easy to Stomach


A review of Gulp, by Mary Roach
W.W. Norton & Co., 2013
352 pages

You probably never wanted to know what raw whale skin tastes like (slightly nutty). Or, for that matter, the history of enemas in convents (the nuns rather enjoyed them). The beauty of Mary Roach’s new book Gulp is that she doesn’t really care what you want to know. Her newest endeavor was to research the digestive system and she has gleefully brought us a long for the ride. Her curiosity about gross-out subjects like feces, vomit, and entrails is infectiously delightful. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud and sharing her fascinating anecdotes over dinner—though you may lose sight of what is considered polite mealtime conversation. Full Review »

Of Birds and Brains

Scope Correspondent

A review of Alex & Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg
232 pages
MJF Books, 2008


“He’d sometimes say ‘You tickle,’ and bend his head so I could scratch his face. As I did, the white area around his eyes turned a subtle pink, blushing as Greys do when being intimate. His eyes would squint almost closed.”

How often pet owners must fantasize that their cat or dog will tell them, in speech, to initiate a favorite belly rub. But Alex the African Grey Parrot was not a pet. He was a science experiment. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Alex packed plenty of personality into a pound of feathers. Upon his death in 2007, he was mourned not only as a television star but as a scientific icon. Irene Pepperberg, an associate research professor at Brandeis University who teaches animal cognition at Harvard University, had worked with Alex for thirty years, teaching him a limited vocabulary of English words, which he used to interact with humans and his surroundings. She chronicles their journey in her book Alex & Me, first published in 2008. Full Review »

Physicists and Particles and Synchrotrons. Oh My!

Scope Correspondent

A Review of Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles, by Paul Halpern
288 pages
Wiley, 2010

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two years, then you’ve probably heard of the Higgs boson. Physicist Peter Higgs predicted the particle’s existence in the 1960s, and in 2012 scientists finally found it with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The discovery made headlines around the world, and public interest in particle physics skyrocketed virtually overnight. But unlike the field’s newfound popularity, the Higgs boson and the incredible machine that found it didn’t come out of nowhere. The road to this moment in particle physics has been a long one, and in Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles, physicist Paul Halpern gives a quick and dirty rundown of how we got here. Full Review »

Should Your Cat Glow?

Scope Correspondent

A review of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts by Emily Anthes
256 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An unusual cat lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Named Mr. Green Genes, he looks like your average orange tabby. But under dark light, he has a neat parlor trick: his eyes, nose, and ears glow green, Rudolph-the-reindeer style. This is because scientists tinkered with his DNA to include a jellyfish gene for fluorescence. Although a silly outcome, it was a serious study monitoring how the glow gene would express itself in foreign species.

In recent decades, other house cats have been subject to seemingly strange science experiments. They have been cloned, surgically altered to include microphone implants, and given pirate-peg-leg-looking prosthetics limbs. These feline Frankensteins offer a taste of the wild things people are doing to animals these days in the name of science, wildlife conservation, medicine, national security, consumerism, and animal love. In her riveting first book, Frankenstein’s Cat, Emily Anthes explores these colorful cats and a menagerie of other animals—from dogs to goldfish, dolphins to seabirds, goats to grizzly bears—at the forefront of this animal biotechnology explosion. Full Review »

The Grand Puzzle

Scope Correspondent

A review of The Species Seekers, by Richard Conniff
464 pages, W. W. Norton 2010

Last week brought word of several new discoveries in the animal kingdom: leaf-cutter bees in Texas, transparent fish in Brazil; mouse-like lemurs in Madagascar; spiders in Sri Lanka described (worrisomely, to this reader at least) as “face-sized.” It should hardly come as a surprise that novel forms of life continue to crop up. Scientists identify over 15,000 new species each year, making it highly likely that another fascinating critter will have been uncovered in the time it takes you to finish reading the morning newspaper.

And yet, no matter how many times we hear of such discoveries, each one still carries a thrill, a small feeling of delight. For who doesn’t enjoy it when another exotic member of our teeming menagerie is uncovered? This instinct is an old one; humans have long sought to compile encyclopedic knowledge of all creatures great and small. From Aristotle’s earliest biological sketches, to the richly illustrated bestiaries of the Middle Ages (which included fantastical sea monsters and unicorns drawn from apocryphal stories), to the sixteenth century zoological work of Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, progress was consistent if uneven up until Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published his first rigorous taxonomical classifications in 1735. Full Review »

You, the Reader, Will Die

Scope Correspondent

A review of The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers – How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death by Dick Teresi
368 pages. Random House, 2012

Dick Teresi will hold your hand, incite you to argument, and dare you to contradict him. But first, he needs to be perfectly blunt. “You, the reader, will die,” he proclaims within the first five pages. He wants you to think about death as much as he does, which is quite a lot, according to his therapist who declares him not so much clinically depressed as exceptionally morbid. But for Teresi, it’s not so interesting that you’ll die but rather, how we’ll know you’re dead.

Known for his journalistic musings on the God Particle and our understanding of the number zero, in his humorous and extensively researched third book, The Undead, Teresi tackles how modern society and its past counterparts have decided when people are dead. As it turns out, it’s not nearly as straightforward as it sounds and most people can’t tell the difference between a dead guy and a plate of jello (really, they have similar brain scan readings). While he states at the beginning of the book, “My job as a journalist is to reveal data. You can do with that information what you wish,” it is clear he has strong opinions on the matter. Full Review »

On the Playground with the Bullies of Science


A review of The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Can’t Solve Our Global Problems, by Henry Petroski
274 pages. Knopf, 2010. $26.95

If would-be pocket-protecting scientists were the kids that received wedgies on the playground and were nearly forced into malnutrition by bullies stealing their lunch money, I wonder what would-be engineers endured in Henry Petroski’s school.

“Engineering can be as much of an assault on the frontiers of knowledge as is science,” asserts Petroski in The Essential Engineer, sounding the battle trumpet of engineering. A professor of civil engineering at Duke University, Petroski’s out to get engineers some respect. He’s tired of bully scientists hogging the spotlight of public esteem and relevance. Full Review »

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