Science

6 Questions with Michael Rossi, author of “The Republic of Color: Science, Perception, and the Making of Modern America”

October 14, 2019
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In Michael Rossi’s compelling new history, The Republic of Color, he shows readers how the control and regulation of color shaped the social contours of modern America—and redefined the way we see the world. We sent Rossi a few questions to learn more about color science and how it affects us today. First, can you give us a quick introduction to the “republic of color”—what does this term describe? As you might know, “the Republic of Color” was not the original title for the book. Credit goes to Prof. Kathleen Belew for coming up with the felicitous wording over dinner after a workshop session. Credit also to numerous other readers, colleagues, and friends who convinced me that my own titular ideas were obtuse and/or confusing. Thank you, all! This said, “the Republic of Color” works so well as a title because it emphasizes that the book is about color and politics. Rather than simply an ideologically neutral fact about the visual world, color perception—and especially scientific research about how human beings see, experience, and talk about color (or not)—was an important part of the project of American statecraft at the turn of the century. Instead of being ancillary to politics, . . .

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Celebrate #WorldMigratoryBirdDay with “The Art of the Bird”

October 12, 2019
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Celebrate #WorldMigratoryBirdDay with “The Art of the Bird”

Each year, the second Saturday in October marks the autumn celebration of World Migratory Bird Day, a biannual, international “awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats.” Stretched along Lake Michigan and sitting squarely on the Mississippi Flyway, the Chicago region is an incredibly important habitat for migratory birds—and a great place to go birdwatching. This October 12 and beyond, take a peek (or beak?) inside the recently published The Art of the Bird: The History of Ornithological Art through Forty Artists by expert ornithologist Roger J. Lederer. Lavishly illustrated with 200 color plates, this is a coffee table book that art lovers and birdwatchers alike will flock to. Below, we include some of the birds (or their cousins) to watch out for in Chicago this autumn. If you’ve hung hummingbird feeders in your garden, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a migrating ruby-throated hummingbird. These (not ruby-throated) hummingbirds, painted by American artist Arthur B. Singer (1917–90), were featured on the cover of Alexander Skutch’s The Life of the Hummingbird in 1973. As Lederer writes, Singer’s “reputation was made in 1961 with Oliver Austin’s Birds of the World book, which . . .

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6 Questions with Mark Hineline, author of “Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home”

September 9, 2019
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We know that the Earth’s climate is changing and that the magnitude of this change is colossal. At the same time, the world outside is still a natural world and one we can experience on a granular level every day. Ground Truth is a practical guide to living in this condition of changing nature, to paying attention instead of turning away. Ground Truth features detailed guidance for keeping records of the plants, animals, and seasonal changes that occur in our neighborhood. This practice is known as phenology—the study and timing of natural events—and these records can be put to practical use by scientists. We talked with author Mark L. Hineline about how he came to practice phenology, and why it’s more important now than ever. The media and scientists highlight increasing temperature when they talk about climate change, but you discount temperature and instead highlight phenology. What is phenology, and why do you think it is more important than temperature? Temperature, global temperature, is very important. But as people going about our daily business, we’re not equipped to make distinctions at the scale of a degree or two, or even five degrees. Humidity makes a difference in how we experience . . .

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It’s Independence Day! Read an Excerpt from “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose”

July 4, 2019
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In the years after the Revolutionary War, the fledgling republic of America was viewed by many Europeans as a degenerate backwater, populated by subspecies weak and feeble. Chief among these naysayers was the French Count and world-renowned naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, who wrote that the flora and fauna of America (humans included) were inferior to European specimens. Thomas Jefferson spent years countering the French conception of American degeneracy. The American moose, which Jefferson claimed was so enormous a European reindeer could walk under it, became the cornerstone of his defense. Convinced that the sight of such a magnificent beast would cause Buffon to revise his claims, Jefferson had the remains of a seven-foot ungulate shipped first class from New Hampshire to Paris. Unfortunately, Buffon died before he could make any revisions to his Histoire Naturelle, but the legend of the moose makes for a fascinating tale about Jefferson’s passion to prove that American nature deserved prestige. In Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose, first published in 2009 and reissued in paperback this year, Lee Alan Dugatkin vividly recreates the origin and evolution of the debates about natural history in America and, in so doing, returns the prize moose to its rightful place in . . .

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Read an Excerpt from “Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound”

May 23, 2019
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Philosopher and musician David Rothenberg is an expert in interspecies music. He has a long history of making live music with the sounds of nature, including birds, whales, and bugs. Now, with a new book and CD, Rothenberg turns his attention to the elusive figure of the nightingale. Rather than try to capture a sound not made for humans to understand, Rothenberg seeks these musical creatures out, clarinet in tow, and makes a new sound with them. He takes us to the urban landscape of Berlin—longtime home to nightingale colonies where the birds sing ever louder in order to be heard—and invites us to listen in on their remarkable collaboration as birds and instruments riff off of each other’s sounds. Rothenberg has released two albums that chronicle his music-making with the nightingales. Listen along while you read for the ultimate moment of zen. Are you surprised there are nightingales in Berlin? They have flown thousands of miles to get here, up from Africa and over the sea like refugees of the air. They sing from wells of silence, their voices piercing the urban noise. Each has his chosen perch to come back to each year. We know they will return, . . .

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5 Questions for Robin Wolfe Scheffler, author of “A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine”

May 16, 2019
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5 Questions for Robin Wolfe Scheffler, author of “A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine”

In his new book, A Contagious Cause: The American Hunt for Cancer Viruses and the Rise of Molecular Medicine, Robin Wolfe Scheffler explores the United States’s century-long search for a human cancer virus and reveals the ways in which the effort, while ultimately fruitless, profoundly shaped our understanding of life at its most fundamental levels. We sent Scheffler a few questions to learn more about his research, his motivations for writing the book, his recent reads, and more.  How did you wind up in this academic field, and what do you love about it? A British scientist named CP Snow once claimed that the sciences and humanities were two separate cultures, but I’ve never felt that way. I studied history and chemistry as a student at the University of Chicago. I was drawn to these two subjects because they each connected things—chemistry bridged biology and physics, history bridged the humanities and the social sciences. I explored everything from the economic geography of grain elevators to the mathematical modeling of dimerization before a professor suggested to me that studying the history of science might allow me to connect all of my interests. He was right!   Years later I still enjoy working in . . .

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Earth Day: Read the Entry for Today from “A Year with Nature”

April 22, 2019
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Herpetologist and natural history writer Marty Crump is a collector of wild tales; and in this bedside book for nature lovers, her treasure chest of stories opens wide. Gathering science and lore, wit and wisdom into a day-by-day, charmingly illustrated wander through the year, A Year with Nature is a quotidian companion that doesn’t eschew conservation issues even as it encourages contemplation, awe, and fun. On April 17, we read a dispatch from the annual Black Bear Festival in Louisiana; on August 12, we learn about World Elephant Day; and on November 13, the day that Coleridge published his famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we fly with the albatross (of course). From pythons to oceans, from the moon to the Hope Diamond, the world that this joyful book celebrates is one that is still wild and wonderful—and worth protecting. This Earth Day, read on for A Year with Nature’s inspiring April 22 entry celebrating photographer and preservationist Ansel Adams, who died thirty-five years ago today. APRIL 22 Photography and Wilderness Preservation You don’t take a photograph, you make it. —ANSEL ADAMS, photographer Naturalists, conservationists, environmentalists, and others who dedicate their lives to preserving landscapes strive to accomplish their goals in different ways . . .

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