Jennifer Ackerman Explores the Astonishing Intelligence of Birds

You may be surprised to learn a new definition for the old insult “bird brain”. It turns out that birds are incredibly intelligent creatures. Recently crows made headlines on the New York Times for learning to make sophisticated tools from memory. This month, a paper was published on scientists’ quest to understand bird conversation. But in 2016, when Ackerman published her book, scientists had only been toeing the boundary line of understanding avian intelligence. Now, the subject fascinates the public as much as the scientists who study it.

Ackerman’s book is well-written and well-informed. Her tone is equal parts amused and fascinated as she dialogues with ornithologists and experts. She introduces her readers to the stars of avian intelligence: New Caledonian crows, parrots, ravens, and my personal favorite, the bowerbird.  Bowerbirds are the aesthetics of the avian world. The males create ornate, decorative nests in which they seduce a potential mate. Female bowerbirds are notoriously picky. Males hand-select colorful objects they arrange to impress females. Ackerman describes this unique behavior in such a captivating way that I just had to look up pictures of bowerbird nests.

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The Genius of Birds explores the rich and diverse characteristics of avian intelligence, from language and birdsong to courting behavior and homing instinct. Ackerman presents the bird not as the dumb creature it has been thought of for centuries (evoking terms such as bird brain, etc), but as a brilliant and misunderstood creature that we have yet to fully understand. She focuses on present understanding of birds in comparison to past misconceptions. Although I would have enjoyed a more thorough glimpse into history, as I enjoy science books that move from past to present, Ackerman does a great job of focusing on the present circumstances; what do we know, and what do we have left to learn?

Her book isn’t particularly moving or emotionally-provoking, but it is a thorough account of a fascinating subject. She is careful to quote scientists who warn against anthropomorphism, but it often feels as if she is bestowing her own anthropomorphic thoughts on the birds she observes. I think that this is actually an effective way for her to engage with non-scientific audiences and those who are emotionally invested in birds, but for those looking for a strictly professional and scientific glimpse into bird brains, the book may fall short in that it lacks a serious tone. That said, her writing is fun and engaging, and she puts a special emphasis on puns (for those who enjoy bird puns, you’ll find yourself giggling quite a bit).

The Genius of Birds is a New York Times bestseller for a reason – it’s educational, fascinating, and a wonderful example of engaging storytelling. It is especially wonderful for those who don’t know anything about birds but want to know more about their intelligence, behaviors, and characteristics. Ackerman’s book is charming and worth reading — and if you’re like me, by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll want to watch Planet Earth again for that cute bird with the blue face on its feathers dancing for a potential mate.

Support a local bookstore and find a copy near you!

Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik’s Enthralling Explanation of Our Physical World

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If Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup is a whimsical explanation of how things work, Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is more like a love letter to the materials which compose our world. Stuff Matters is not just delightful and easy to follow along, it’s simply enthralling. Scientific American’s description of Miodownik’s “infectious enthusiasm” for explaining the history and science of everyday materials is apt.

Czerski and Miodownik share a fascination and excitement for the commonplace: while Czerski delights in the physics which makes her toaster heat her toast, Miodownik holds an unrivaled appreciation for cement. Both of these scientists are eager to share these kinds of unexplored wonders of the world with inquisitive minds, and both should be approached with a childlike sense of curiosity.

Reading Stuff Matters is an excuse to ask your friends, “did you know…?” followed by an absurdly obscure fact about something they encounter in their physical world every day. This is the “infectious enthusiasm” which Scientific American described in their own review. In the video included below, Miodownik presents the charming behaviors and startling characteristics of various strange materials with an energy he conveys equally through his writing.

If you’re an avid reader, you’ve likely come across a vast array of books with unique qualities, but Stuff Matters brings a whole different set of unique characteristics to the table. Miodownik’s book is structured around a single photograph he first presents in the introduction. It’s a deceptively simple black and white photograph of the author himself seated at a table atop his roof, his eyes downcast at a book, the city buildings rising behind him. Each cleverly-titled chapter proceeds to break down a material seen in this photograph.

Steel. Concrete. Paper. Diamonds. Chocolate. In his book, Miodownik chooses some of the most “marvelous materials that shape our man-made world” and strips them down, revealing their secrets, forcing you to stop and consider the things you encounter every day. Most of us have not thought much about these materials before, and Miodownik’s approach is indeed one of thoughtfulness. He also writes with a tone of reflection, often utilizing startling and amusing anecdotes from his own life to build a personal connection with a materials he will discuss. In one unforgettable example about an accident in which he collided with a tractor while out for a drive, he describes the sensation of being catapulted through the windshield of a car “like hitting a wall of transparent ginger snaps”.

Miodownik’s ability to describe materials in vivid ways that make us think twice about them, or in some cases even think about them in the first place, is a magical ability in an author writing about science. By seamlessly weaving interesting history and fascinating science together and presenting it to readers with tongue-in-cheek humor and personal anecdotes, Stuff Matters is clearly deserving of its awards.

It’s also clearly deserving of your time spent reading it. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore.

Physicist Helen Czerski Reveals the Extraordinary Science Behind Everyday Life

“Why does milk, when added to tea, look like billowing storm clouds?”

This is the question behind the title of physicist Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. Her fascinating explorations into ordinary occurrences are the perfect introduction to physics for the lay-reader. Her brief and engaging stories help link concepts like refraction, reflection, gravity, and thermodynamics with moments in your daily life. If you’ve ever wondered how your cell phone works or why your toast always seems to fall butter-side down, this is the book for you.

Czerski takes difficult scientific material and presents it in bite-sized chunks through fast-paced storytelling. But in the first chapter, her style can come across as chaotic. She jumps from one idea to another before you’re finished thinking about the last one. You might feel lost at first, doubt yourself, or wonder if you’re not smart enough to grasp her ideas. Then suddenly, it all comes together. The stories connect to a physics concept so eloquently that you just get it. Now you’re delighted while you read, and every story she presents seems to draw you in deeper and deeper until all you can think about is how the world around you works.

The rest of the book reads more smoothly once you’ve adjusted to her pace and writing style. It’s not that she isn’t a talented writer – Czerski writes “Everyday Science” for BBC Focus magazine, and is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. But her pace can whisk you off your feet. If you take the time to watch her TED Talk, The fascinating physics of everyday life, you’ll understand that feeling.

Once you get your feet back under you, you’re in for a whirlwind adventure through science. Czerski’s high-energy attitude and wit give way to fascinating explanations about how your toaster works, why toast always seems to land butter-side down, and why duck’s feet never seem to get cold (turns out that they’re already cold). She’ll walk you through her memories and show you the science behind a small detail captured within them. Her vivid imagery, warm narration, and charming wit keeps her readers thoroughly entertained. Following along with her is like having a really, really good dinner conversation.

It feels like you can open up Storm in a Teacup to any page, read a paragraph or two aloud, and surprise everyone in the room with a cool physics concept they will all understand. And that’s exactly what Czerski aims to bring you; something you can share the coolness of with other people. Throughout the book, she throws in plenty of experiments you can try for yourself or show your friends and family. One of her most famous examples is spinning eggs, which you can see a demonstration of in her TED talk above. Her ability to use an everyday occurrence to help others understand physics makes science friendly and engaging to all audiences. While the experts can nod along, smiling, she’ll have non-scientists thrilled like fans of Mythbusters and How It’s Made. If you watch those kinds of shows, then you’ll probably like this book.

My own opportunity to apply what I learned from Storm in a Teacup came while I was at my job. I work as a medication technician at an assisted living home, where I have to monitor residents’ blood sugar levels and administer insulin shots and medications. Recently, one of my residents watched me poke his finger to check his blood sugar. When I read off his number on the screen, he surprised me by asking how the device could possibly know that. I immediately thought of a passage I had read in Czerski’s book just the night before:

Today, people with diabetes can monitor their blood sugar using a simple electronic device and a test strip. A tiny drop of blood touched to the test strip will immediately whoosh into the absorbent material due to capillary action. Tucked away in the tiny pores of the strip is an enzyme, glucose oxidase, and when this reacts with blood sugar it produces an electric signal. The hand-held device measures that signal, and viola! – an accurate measure of blood sugar appears on the screen.

After I explained this process to him, the seventy-one-year-old man raised his eyebrows and remarked that he had no idea how “smart the damn thing” was. I laughed. He told me he’d always wondered how it worked, but never thought to ask because he didn’t think I would know the answer. I did, thanks to Helen Czerski.

This is the wonderful thing about reading Czerski’s book. She’s giving you answers to questions you’ve thought about but never voiced. You might struggle now and then to understand a certain concept (physics never fails to blow my mind), but you will have that inevitable moment when something absolutely relates to what you do. And when you get to share that knowledge with someone else, it makes that satisfaction even better. The point is to provide explanations that everyone – your mom, your grandma, or your little brother – will understand.

Czerski ends her book by connecting fundamental physics to three essential systems – the human body, civilization, and the earth. These three short sections serve as an epilogue, leaving the reader with an understanding that knowledge of physics is not only relevant, but necessary. An understanding of its fundamental laws will benefit anyone and everyone. She is not only advocating for the importance of her field and her career, she is empowering non-scientists to have a better understanding of their world. She’s doing what every science communicator strives for: bringing science to the general public and engaging them with interesting concepts relevant to their ordinary lives.

That’s why her book is such a joy to read. It’s physics for everyone.

Samantha Weinberg’s Incredible Story About an Ancient Fish Rediscovered

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A thrilling scientific adventure about the world’s obsession with an elusive fish once thought extinct: Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time (2000) is simply captivating. If you have read Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass (2016) and enjoyed learning about a fascinating fish called the arowana, then you will love this historical look at the coelacanth (see-la-kanth). Voigt and Weinberg’s stories may be about obsessions with coveted fish, but the similarities end there. While Voigt approaches her story with the smart, analytical skepticism of a journalist, Weinberg indulges readers in an emotional tale ripe with adventure, romance, and awe-inspiring science. Her story will reel you in – hook, line, and sinker.

A Fish Caught in Time is a beautiful historical account of the rediscovery of the coelacanth, an ancient species of fish that was originally known only by its fossils. Weinberg opens her tale by sharing the startling discovery of the first living coelacanth by a young museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who spotted it aboard a trawler’s deck among other specimens he had brought her. Weinberg seamlessly weaves science into her storytelling, wrapping her readers up in her tale of scientists and fishermen desperately searching for a live coelacanth. She lets her readers learn alongside scientists as they make thrilling discoveries and observations of a fish they once believed to be extinct. Weinberg captures the drama that unfolds as the scientific world becomes obsessed with the coelacanth, endangering the fish in their hunt for the perfect specimen.nWeinberg takes us through the lives of those who were touched by the quest for the fish. The way Voigt describes how enthusiasts (and herself) became obsessed with finding a rare arowana in the wild is quite similar to Weinberg’s description of ichthyologists growing obsessed with their quest for a specimen.

Check out this super-cute illustrated history of the coelacanth, a living fossil, produced by TedEd:

Sprinkled with old black-and-white photographs, Weinberg text is lively and entertaining and filled with sobering wisdom. She is not afraid to address the issue of sexism in science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a problem raised when scientists questioned why the Latimeria chalumnae was named after Latimer, a female scientist without a professional background. Even more controversial was the idea that the coelacanth was a missing link in the evolutionary chain: an editorial from the Manchester Guardian read “The theory of apartheid and the superiority of White over Black would take a nasty blow if…it could be shown that the common ancestor [of men] is the Coelacanth, a mere fish.” In addition to that controversy, the idea of paying native fishermen to catch coelacanths for scientists raised ethical questions.

Weinberg does not tread lightly over the controversial subjects that arise throughout her text. She dives into the history of the Comoros, an archipelago off the east coast of Africa, where many coelacanth have been found. She truthfully presents the effects of the rise of the coelacanth on Comoran culture and its influence. She describes how their society is organized and how the coelacanth benefited poor fishermen and shook the foundation of their social structure. What I liked best of all was Weinberg’s personal narrative spent aboard a Comoran fishing boat, witnessing firsthand the nighttime fishing tradition of the Comoran fishermen.

Weinberg’s book is a treasure trove of good stories that weave together the history of the coelacanth and its influence on the world.

Journalist Emily Voigt on her Quest for the World’s Most Coveted Fish

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You won’t need to like fish to enjoy Emily Voigt’s illuminating look into the competitive – and dangerous – world of The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish. 

Voigt’s book reads like a spy novel. Her fast-paced storytelling sweeps you into a whirlwind adventure around the globe in her quest to find the wild Asian arowana, a rare and captivating fish. What begins as a journalist’s fascination with the world’s most expensive aquarium fish turns into a story seeped in nostalgia for the age of scientific exploration.

It’s easy to see why her book received the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award in 2017. Her story takes you first into the underground world of the illegal exotic animal trade in the United States, then off to meet the fish-obsessed elite in Asia, and to eventually linger among the fishermen living along the Amazon. Voigt shows us society through a fishbowl lens, altering the way we perceive our natural world and ourselves.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is the ultimate tale of scientific colonialism, an unofficial term used to explain how early explorers set out with an “in the name of science” mentality to describe, and thereby conquer, the natural world. Discoveries and subsequent naming of species became more competitive as the world progressed towards the twentieth century. Although experts have estimates, it is unclear how many species are still left to be discovered in our world today. Ichthyology is fortunate enough to be a field where there are still many discoveries yet to be made: in 2012, UNESCO reported that an average of 2,000 fish are being discovered each year.

Halfway through her book, Voigt pulls you in with the thrill of the chase. Enthused with the possibility of helping a notorious ichthyologist describe a possible new species of arowana, distinguishable by unique script-like markings on its scales, she sets out to obtain him a specimen from the wild. While many books tend to flatline in the middle, Voigt’s constant and relentless pursuit of one fish (or fish expert) after another keeps the reader engaged and makes for a quick, effortless read. By the middle, you feel like you’ve left the spy thriller behind and are now having a good conversation over dinner with the author.

Voigt’s ability to almost nonchalantly describe her incredibly dangerous and ridiculous escapades is both humorous and humble. She could have exaggerated the world of wealthy arowana owners and glorified the eccentric men who spend thousands of dollars on, well, fish. But she approaches every scene in her story with the skepticism and curiosity of an experienced journalist. Although this is her first book, it was recognized as a Best Science Book of the Year by Library Journal. 

It’s unusual for me to have no complaints about a book. Often there are minor details that bother me, remaining questions nagging my mind, or a general dislike for the author in the worst cases. But Emily Voigt delivers nothing but the best, and I liked her writing enough to hope she’ll bring us more books in the future. She’s raw and honest, which makes for a good storyteller. She admits the times it feels like she’s on a wild goose chase. The captive arowana fish do little to enchant her, despite writing an entire book about the species.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is an illuminating look into a topic many of us never knew existed. You’ll find yourself thinking about fish a little too much by the time you close the book.