Science

7 Questions with David Sepkoski, author of “Catastrophic Thinking”

November 23, 2020
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7 Questions with David Sepkoski, author of “Catastrophic Thinking”

We live in an age in which we are repeatedly reminded—by scientists, by the media, by popular culture—of the looming threat of mass extinction. Such apocalyptic talk feels familiar to us, but the current fascination with extinction is a relatively recent phenomenon. As David Sepkoski reveals, the way we value biodiversity depends crucially on our sense that it is precarious—that it is something actively threatened, and that its loss could have profound consequences. In his new book, Sepkoski uncovers how and why we learned to value diversity as a precious resource at the same time as we learned to think catastrophically about extinction. We asked him a few questions about it. In the book, you explain how an “extinction imaginary” helps inform the way we see and value the world around us. Can you give us a quick introduction to that term? A central claim of this book is that scientific ideas and cultural values can’t be cleanly separated: science doesn’t “cause” us to believe certain things about society or politics, nor do political or social values “explain” particular scientific theories. Rather, the science and culture of a particular place and time are tightly interwoven and reinforce each other by . . .

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5 Questions for Catherine Zabinski, author of “Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop”

October 15, 2020
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It’s harvest season! What better time to dip into agricultural history? Wheat was one of the first domesticated food crops, and for roughly 8,000 years it has been a dietary staple in Europe, West Asia, and North Africa. Today, wheat is grown on more land area than any other commercial crop, and it continues to be the most important food grain for humans. A plant this prolific surely deserves its own biography. In Amber Waves, Catherine Zabinski invites us to follow the evolutionary journey of wheat while exploring its symbiotic relationship with humans. We are introduced to the habits and history of this member of the grass family, how it lives, how it thrives, and how it arrived at its current form. We learn how our ancestors discovered and exploited the grain, which went on to be foundational to the development of civilization—from the wild grasses first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent to the ancient empires that sought to control its production. And in modern times, we discover wheat’s role in the Green Revolution and contemporary efforts to produce a perennial form. From the origins of agriculture to gluten sensitivities and genetic engineering, Amber Waves sheds new light on how . . .

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5 Questions with Alexander Wragge-Morley, author of “Aesthetic Science: Representing Nature in the Royal Society of London, 1650–1720”

September 10, 2020
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In his new book, Aesthetic Science, Alexander Wragge-Morley explores scientific representation in the early modern period and shows us how vital the role of subjective experience is to the communication of knowledge about nature. It’s a fascinating, groundbreaking reconsideration of the role of aesthetic experience in the history of the empirical sciences, and we sent him a few questions about it. In Aesthetic Science, you explore the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. What drew you to the topic? What do you like about it? I’d say that there’s a lot to like when you think about the relationship between sensory experience and the production of knowledge. To start, the issue is obviously fundamental—and I like fundamental issues. I don’t think you can give a good account of knowledge production unless you think hard about how the senses—with all the feelings they provoke—give us access to the external world. What’s more, that fundamental question allows you to think about the history of science in new ways. By focusing on how the scientists of seventeenth-century England related to sensory experience, I was able to pull a wide range of disciplines together—disciplines that are usually studied separately. In Aesthetic . . .

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Book Trailer: Hearing Happiness

August 21, 2020
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We're excited to share the book trailer for historian Jaipreet Virdi's new book, 'Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History'! . . .

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#SciComm: Suggested Readings for Effective Communication

June 23, 2020
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Summer is upon us, and as cities, states, and nations begin to open up following months of pandemic lockdown, we remain uncertain about what the future holds. The need for clear, informed, and effective communication of science information to the general public has never been greater. For all the scicommers of the world, we’ve put together a #SciComm toolkit of books, many of which appear in our series of Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. To all the science journalists, writers, video and radio producers, and public information officers: we thank you for your work and hope these suggested readings are of some help! The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science: Second Edition Scott L. Montgomery Writing Science in Plain English Anne E. Greene Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story Randy Olson Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, Eighth Edition Council of Science Editors Also available as Scientific Style and Format Online Ethics and Practice in Science Communication Edited by Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, and Michael F. Dahlstrom Handbook for Science Public Information Officers W. Matthew Shipman The Chicago Guide to Writing about Numbers, Second Edition Jane E. Miller The Chicago . . .

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5 Questions for Ellen Prager, author of “Dangerous Earth: What We Wish We Knew about Volcanoes, Hurricanes, Climate Change, Earthquakes, and More”

March 3, 2020
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As news of earthquake swarms in Puerto Rico, bushfires in Australia, volcanic eruptions in New Zealand, and the calamitous impacts of climate change fills the headlines, it would seem easy to despair, to feel that the Earth is somehow out to get us. In Dangerous Earth, marine scientist and brilliant science communicator Ellen Prager cuts through the noise of fear and misunderstanding that surrounds disasters—both natural and unnatural. Drawing on the latest science, highlighting the questions and characters that push this research forward, and celebrating the hope that ongoing discoveries give for our future, Dangerous Earth is far from a gloomy end-of-days geoscience treatise. It is an exhilarating tour of some of the most awesome forces on our planet—many tragic, yet nonetheless awe-inspiring—and an illuminating journey through the undiscovered, unresolved, and in some cases unimagined mysteries that continue to inspire the world’s leading scientists: the “wish-we-knews” that ignite both our curiosity and global change. We sent Prager a few questions recently to learn more about her motivations for writing the book. How did you wind up in your field, and what do you love about it? As a child, I loved nature and was particularly fond of Jacque Cousteau specials . . .

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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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