Biology

Oceans and Sustainability

April 21, 2006
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Oceans and Sustainability

An essay for International Earth Day by Dorrik Stow, professor of ocean and earth science at the University of Southampton, UK, and the author of Oceans: An Illustrated Reference. Sustainability is neither a fashionable trend that will go away once its media exposure has played out, nor is it an option we can lightly dismiss. Sustainability is every bit as essential to the future of human existence as are the food and water we consume and the air we breathe. April 22 has been designated International Earth Day, a time to focus across the world on planet Earth—her natural resources, environment and future. Despite being endowed with enormous richness and diversity of natural resources, the United States can only sustain itself at present rates of consumption for about six months of each year. For the remaining half year it is totally reliant on imports. Furthermore, if the global population consumed at the same rate as the American people, the world would require more than five times the total global resource base to survive. The sums simply do not add up. But we are no better here in the UK, so I am not simply pointing an accusing finger from across . . .

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The Will to Act on the Environment

April 20, 2006
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The Will to Act on the Environment

An essay for International Earth Day by R. Bruce Hull, author of Infinite Nature. As the saying goes: We live in interesting times. Globalization and fundamentalism seem locked in a death struggle to control world economies and cultures. The biosphere, the thin skin of life that blankets Earth, is now dominated by the products of human creativity. Environmental alarmists look at this domination and see biodiversity loss, a destabilized climate, eroding soils, over-fished oceans, and collapsing ecological systems. Even most skeptical environmentalists—who typically highlight the reliable and abundant supply of food, energy, and other resources—acknowledge serious challenges to meeting exponentially growing demands. Meanwhile, the traditional methods of environmental management are faltering. Rational, centralized environmental planning is an admitted failure in most professional circles, and the science wars have diminished the credibility of all expertise. Environmental issues infrequently find space on the national agenda, and critics say environmentalism’s method and focus must change. These conflicting environmental currents and eddies flow within the larger river of postmodern angst, causing us to rethink answers to our ultimate questions: What does it mean to be human? What is the essence of the natural and supernatural world we live in? How should we relate to . . .

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Review: Stow, Oceans

April 11, 2006
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Review: Stow, Oceans

Library Journal‘s new issue features a nice review of Dorrik Stow’s Oceans: An Illustrated Reference: "This authoritative reference work presents a thorough overview of the physical, geological, chemical, and biological properties of the world’s oceans.… Stow’s up-to-date and well-organized volume would make a valuable introduction to a huge field of knowledge and is therefore recommended for high school, public, and academic libraries." Although the oceans are vast, their resources are finite. Oceans clearly presents the future challenge to us all—that of ensuring that our common ocean heritage is duly respected, wisely managed, and carefully harnessed for the benefit of the whole planet. Lavishly illustrated and filled with current research, Oceans is a step in that direction: a rich, magnificent, and illuminating volume for anyone who has ever heard the siren song of the sea. . . .

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Review: Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time

April 5, 2006
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Review: Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time

Nature features a nice review of Martin J. S. Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. From the review by Stephen Moorbath: "Bursting the Limits of Time is a massive work and is quite simply a masterpiece of science history.… Rudwick’s text is beautifully written and grips the attention throughout.… The book should be obligatory for every geology and history-of-science library, and is a highly recommended companion for every civilized geologist who can carry an extra 2.4 kg in his rucksack.… Rudwick has amply fulfilled his stated aim of describing the injection of history into a science that had been primarily descriptive or causal. Indeed, thanks to Rudwick and his kind, we may rest assured that the future of the history of science is in safe hands." Bursting the Limits of Time is the culmination of a lifetime of study by Martin J. S. Rudwick, the world’s leading historian of geology and paleontology. In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh joined the long-running theological debate on the age of the earth by famously announcing that creation had occurred on October 23, 4004 B.C. Although widely challenged during the Enlightenment, this belief in . . .

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A Brain for All Seasons receives Walter P. Kistler Book Award

April 3, 2006
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A Brain for All Seasons receives Walter P. Kistler Book Award

Walter H. Calvin has received the 2006 Walter P. Kistler Book Award for his book A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change. The award, presented by the Foundation For the Future, recognizes authors of science-based books that contribute to society’s understanding of the factors that may impact the long-term future of humanity. Mankind has recently come to the shocking realization that our ancestors survived hundreds of abrupt and severe changes to Earth’s climate. In A Brain for All Seaons, William H. Calvin takes readers around the globe and back in time, showing how such cycles of cool, crash, and burn provided the impetus for enormous increases in the intelligence and complexity of human beings—and warning us of human activities that could trigger similarly massive shifts in the planet’s climate. On April 6, at 7:00 p.m., the University of Washington will host an award ceremony for Calvin. He will be interviewed, participate in a Q&A session, and sign books. The event is free and open to the public. Read an excerpt. . . .

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Review: Dorrik Stow, Oceans

March 28, 2006
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Review: Dorrik Stow, Oceans

The New Scientist has praised Dorrik Stow’s Oceans: An Illustrated Reference. From the review by Adrian Barnett: "From sun-drenched atolls to the ice-capped Arctic, Oceans provides a photo-packed history of the seas, their geology, geochemistry and physics, their cycles and circulations. In elegant prose, Stow examines marine life in all its glorious strangeness and extreme abundance. He covers major areas of oceanographic research, including sociology, anthropology and archaeology, revealing how much we know, and the enormous amount we don’t. Helped by lots of colour photographs and explanatory diagrams, charts and maps, this is a splendid, fact-packed read." . . .

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Guthrie in the New Mexican

March 20, 2006
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Guthrie in the New Mexican

Last week, the New Mexican featured an article about R. Dale Guthrie’s new book, The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Guthrie’s book has been eliciting media attention because of his theory that many Paleolithic era cave paintings were done by "testosterone-laden" young boys. From the Associated Press article by Dan Joling: Most books on Pleistocene art focus on the best of the era, images produced by highly skilled hands. The Mammoth Steppe, the portion of the northern hemisphere that stayed ice-free while much of the Earth was covered by Ice Age glaciation, was rich in deposits of earth pigments, such as red, orange and yellow iron oxides. Paleolithic artists sometimes applied them by brush, sometimes by chewing and spitting in a fine, dry spray, producing a stipple. "Most prehistorians think of adults doing all these things," Guthrie said. Many scholars also contend that most of the art was done by shamans for religious purposes—pictures to please the gods, or bless a hunt or dramatize a shaman’s vision. Overlooked, Guthrie said, are thousands of less sophisticated drawings that he believes have a more mundane origin. More than half the population was teenage or younger. With artists tools available, Guthrie said, it’s highly . . .

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Into the Cool

March 17, 2006
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Into the Cool

Scientists, theologians, and philosophers have all sought to answer the questions of why we are here and where we are going. Finding this natural basis of life has proved elusive, but in the eloquent and creative Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan look for answers in a surprising place: the second law of thermodynamics. This second law refers to energy’s inevitable tendency to change from being concentrated in one place to becoming spread out over time. In this scientific tour de force, Schneider and Sagan show how the second law is behind evolution, ecology,economics, and even life’s origin. Authors Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan have created a wonderful Into the Cool Web site. It features an in-depth look of each chapter, illustrations, reviews of the book, and a blog. Read an excerpt. . . .

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Who made this handprint on the cave wall?

March 2, 2006
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Who made this handprint on the cave wall?

In The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Dale Guthrie overturns many of the standard interpretations of the ancient cave paintings of the Paleolithic era. Among other things, Guthrie argues that many of the cave paintings were done by children and have similarities with present-day graffiti. Here is a short excerpt from the book: The Identity of the People Who Made the Handprints: Statistical Results “First, the statistical analyses tell us that the majority of the Paleolithic artists who left these handprint stencils in caves were young people. But they also show a great diversity of ages. As noted by other researchers, some prints were made by very young children (younger even than those in my baseline sample). Two hand images are so small that the toddler/baby had to have been carried back into the cave. These occur in Gargas Cave in southern France, which is unusual in having passageways that are easy to traverse and an easy entrance which remained open during much of the past. That is shown by the protohistoric, Gallo-Roman, and medieval graffiti carved in the cave wall. But this is not typical for Paleolithic caves; there are few deep caves one would try to visit with a . . .

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Paleolithic handprints

February 27, 2006
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Paleolithic handprints

In The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Dale Guthrie overturns many of the standard interpretations of the ancient cave paintings of the Paleolithic era. Among other things, Guthrie argues that many of the cave paintings were done by children and have similarities with present-day graffiti. Here is an illustration and short excerpt from the book: Missing Fingers in Art: Ritual, Disease, Frostbite, or Kids Playing? “Many hand images in the French Gargas-Tibran cave complex and Cosquer and in Maltravieso Cave in Spain appear to have missing fingers or other malformations. These “disfigured” hands have fueled discussions for the last 100 years. Groenen (1987) has provided a review of this debate. The central issue, of course, is that virtually all apparent mutilations are also replicable by simply contorting fingers in the stenciled hand (as one does in shadow art). But many people still insist that these represent real ritual amputations. “More recent speculation on possible causes of these disfigured hands has focused on Raynaud’s disease, in which capillaries fail to respond normally by flushing with warm blood when hands or feet get cold. I find this explanation unconvincing, because Raynaud’s disease is seldom expressed in young men (Larson 1996), and the hands . . .

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