"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, December 31, 2010

Discovering the World (book reviews)

Here's a trio of books; they all look beautiful on a table, but they're great reading too. Maybe I'm celebrating voyaging into a new year, here at the end of an old one. I was happy to see that the first of these, Women of Discovery, has been generating some new buzz thanks to the Internet. I thought it was remarkable not just for its writing but in its design, which draws the reader into each story and time.

Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World (2001)
by Milbry Polk and Mary Tiegreen. Introduction by Christine Amanpour.

"Celebration" is indeed the word for this exuberant assemblage of 84 amazing and outrageous individuals. Polk's vivid narratives capture the essence of each fascinating life and adventure, while Tiegreen's remarkable graphics create a sense of authenticity and immediacy, wrapping each account in a style that suits it perfectly. Readers feel they are witnesses to history thanks to well-chosen, first-person observations and ample visual contents such as contemporary maps, memorabilia, photos, and art.

The "women of discovery" include aristocrats and paupers, ancient Vikings and modern space scientists still in their prime. Some lives were more terrible than triumphant, but all "made comprehensible a part of the world that we didn't know, understand, or appreciate until they revealed it to us." The stories are loosely grouped into five freewheeling sections, each with a brief but thought-provoking introduction describing "Early Voyagers," "Intrepid Explorers," "Scientific Explorers," "Artist Explorers," and "Explorers on the Edge." Although a few of the names are well known (Maria Mitchell, Dian Fossey, Zora Neale Hurston), most will come as a complete surprise to readers, who will be wondering why they've never heard of these women before.

This beautiful book is a browser's dream, but it should be equally attractive to anyone looking for fascinating true stories, as well as for students who can use it as a rich source of interesting research subjects. The authors hope that this book will guide anyone "[setting] forth on his or her own voyage of discovery."
(adapted from my SLJ review)
Pomegranate with blue morpho butterflies and Banded Sphinx Moth caterpillar
by Maria Sibylla Merian (from 2008 Getty exhibition)
This next book is a survey of global scientific expeditions over 300 years, and my favorite section is the one about the work of Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), an amazing woman (check out that link - glad to see she's finally receiving some major recognition; maybe this book helped make that happen). Her art is remarkable, visionary, mind-blowing, yet scientifically accurate (she's said to have been the first to record whole life cycles of butterflies and she's also known for the quality of her botanical observtions). I've seen some of her art in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. , and these reproductions come very close. As with Women of Discovery, this book is a great read, and is still being discovered and read, thanks to word of mouth on the Internet:

Voyages of Discovery: Three Centuries of Natural History Exploration (1999) by Anthony Rice

This is a chronicle of major scientific expeditions in a time "when science and art worked in symbiosis." The text is generously illustrated with stunning reproductions, many published here for the first time, of the work of the natural-history artists--sometimes the scientists themselves--who documented the discoveries being made.

Beginning with Sir Hans Sloane's voyage to Jamaica in 1687 (which led eventually to the formation of the British Museum), succeeding chapters describe Dutch discoveries in Ceylon,* and offer extensive coverage of the remarkable independent voyage to Surinam by the artist and entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian.

The 18th century benefited from the lifework of the American John Bartram and the Pacific voyages of James Cook with Sir Joseph Banks and other scientists. In the 19th century, Australia and Amazonia were charted, and Charles Darwin sailed on the Beagle; the book concludes with the Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876, which studied the ocean itself for the first time.

The very readable text should be interesting not just to general readers but also to students of the sciences, history, geography, and art. Perhaps the book's greatest contribution is to showcase the work of the artists who, usually under very difficult circumstances, so brilliantly served science and opened Western eyes to new worlds in their times. No format but the printed page (and printing of this quality) can represent the original work so well. Through these examples the author demonstrates, in dramatic fashion, the process and the necessity of accurate observation in science, and makes the case that photography (for all the advantages it confers in some respects) should not be allowed entirely to supplant the traditional method of direct observation and drawing by scientists themselves.
(adapted from my SLJ review)

*(Note: here's an interesting post about similar work by the Dutch in Cochin. The medicinal information is still in use: http://sandyi.blogspot.com/2012/02/dutch-treasure-trove.html )

 I was particularly keen on recommending this third book to teen readers, as you might guess from my SLJ review below, but like the other books here it's great reading for anyone.

Travels with the Fossil Hunters (2000). Edited by Peter J. Whybrow, with Foreword by David Attenborough

Twelve essays by British paleontologists--each more colorful, humorous, or exciting than the one before. Their work draws these men and women to places such as India, China, Latvia, Yemen, the Sahara, and the Antarctic. They are shot at in Sierra Leone, undergo rabies treatments in Pakistan, and have their work interrupted by police when a recently buried body is dug up instead of a Neandertal in the caves of Gibraltar.

The essayists give enough details of their quests to explain their presence in these places and keep science buffs entertained, while communicating their fascination with their work. Readers see them camping in the wilderness, making friends with people from other cultures, undergoing the rigors of travel in remote areas, and dealing with emergencies of many kinds. Heightening the impact of the stories is an abundance of beautiful, colorful photos of the places, the people, and the fossils. This isn't a reference book; there is not even an index. But for students interested in pursuing any science that might require them to go into the field, it offers a glimpse of the real life they might encounter in such a profession (after all the study, and beyond the quests for grants).

For general readers as well as those who seek out books on dinosaurs and other life-forms from Earth's past, this entertaining volume reveals the human face behind the science, and shows a world still rich with promise.
 (adapted from my SLJ review)

Here's a quartet of books on women adventurers. And then there are the Mars people... explorers too.

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