How do you begin to understand something you’ve never before seen – or perhaps even knew existed? Do you try to relate it to a thing about which you do know? Do you seek out the counsel of those you consider knowledgable, or those who have at least been identified to you as knowledgable? And what if this thing you are trying to fit into your understanding isn’t even something you’ve actually seen for yourself but only something that has been described to you; not in film or in photographs but only in words with perhaps a simple sketch as proof of its existence? How do you separate what might be factual from what could very well be fantasy?
These are among the many questions Juan Pimentel poses in his book The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium; An Essay in Natural History. Taking as his subject the events surrounding two noteworthy specimens in the history of natural history – an Indian -or Greater One-horned – Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) carried alive by ship from India to Portugal in 1515, and the fossilized bones of a Giant Ground Sloth (Megatherium sp.) discovered and shortly thereafter shipped from Brazil to Spain in 1789 – as well as the creatures themselves, Professor Pimentel explores both the history and philosophy of natural history as it was in 1515, the ways in which it had developed by the end of the Nineteenth Century, and indeed, what it is today as a result. Keep reading…
Recent Book Reviews
I am often asked why I write and publish The Well-read Naturalist. Not by people meaning to be insulting, mind you; rather because – usually – they have recently discovered that I do so for no financial or other intentional benefit to myself. When I tell them that after nearly ten years I continue the work of keeping an interested group of readers, the vast majority of whom I’ve never met or from whom received any communication whatsoever, apprised of new and interesting books classifiable as natural history solely for the reason that I think it is important to do so, the looks I receive generally fall somewhere between confused and pitying – as in the way one might look at a gentle madman wholly submerged in an all-encompassing delusion. After all, what sane person does such a thing, week in, week out, for years on end, without a clearly defined goal of personal or professional gain? Keep reading…
On Monday, 26 February 1979, the public schools in my hometown were closed. Not for any designated holiday or scheduled late winter vacation; rather they were closed as the result of an astronomical event: a total eclipse of the sun. Despite the fact that for weeks we had all been rigorously instructed about the dangers of viewing the eclipse without proper eye protection (of which essentially none was widely available there and then; even welding masks were deemed by the teachers as possibly insufficient) and given a rather uninspiring lesson on poking a hole in a shoebox to make a type of indirect viewing tool, at the last minute the superintendent decided that the safest course of action was simply to close the schools and instruct parents to keep their children at home that day – indoors – so that they didn’t take it into their little heads to sneak a peek and blind themselves for life. Keep reading…
Newly Noted Books
With the exception of ants, it’s difficult to imagine an arthropod more colonial than bees. However in thinking of bees this way, we all-to-often forget that not all bees are colonial. In Britain and Ireland, for example, there are approximately ten times more species of solitary bee than bumblebee and honeybee species combined.
Even though I’ve lived in the small Oregon town of Scappoose for more than two decades now, I still find myself disoriented. It’s the river. Flowing past the town, the Columbia flows south to north. In Astoria, where I was raised, it flowed – and still continues to flow – east to west. Rivers are like that; they have effects on a person.
While it may no longer be a topic of everyday conversation, the draining of the fens – vast wetland areas – of eastern England in the Seventeenth Century in order that they could be turned in to arable farmland was an engineering project of monumental proportions as well as effects. Like the more commonly mentioned Enclosure Acts that followed not long after, it brought about changes to the social, political, and ecological systems of the country that are still felt to this day.
What do chemists call a benzene ring with Iron atoms replacing the Carbon atoms? A ferrous wheel. Who says organic chemistry can’t be fun? OK, aside from most people who have taken a course in it…
“Let’s go fly a kite and send it soaring / up through the atmosphere, / up where the air is clear! / Oh, let’s go fly a kite!” So – memorably – sang the freshly awakened and amended George Banks, superbly portrayed by David Tomlinson, in Disney’s “Mary Poppins.”
Birds do it. Bees do it. Educated fleas? Yes, them too. But how do they pick their partners, or convince one another to do it with them? And after they do it, what comes next? All this, of course, is fair game for those who study animal behavior, as well as a wide range of other interesting subjects that Tristram D. Wyatt presents in his new “Animal Behavior; A Very Short Introduction.”
As luck would have it, the grade school I attended had just that year reduced its size from a kindergarten through sixth grade school to a kindergarten through fourth grade school as the result of a then new “middle school” being opened as part of a nineteen-seventies progressive restructuring that took in the fifth and sixth grade students from our grade school as well as two other grade schools in the area. As a result of this, my school ended up with a number of no longer needed classrooms – one of which was a biology lab.
I’ll save the story of what we discovered one day in the storage closet in that lab for another time; however for the purpose of this essay, what we discovered on the tables during a teacher-sent errand into this now-abandoned lab were microscopes – old-fashioned but perfectly serviceable microscopes, both compound and dissecting styles. None of the remaining teachers at the school had any use for them, so for the better part of that year they simply sat collecting dust in the usually locked lab.
The Well-equipped Naturalist
For as long as I’ve ventured afield in search of whatever nature might wish to show me, I’ve gone fully vested. That is to say, I’ve worn a field vest. Not that I have anything against day packs or shoulder bags, mind you; I just find that vests (or as my British friends call them, waistcoats) allow me to carry what I need in a way that allows me easy access to all of it while still letting me move about with a feeling of being unencumbered.
Having discovered the National Science Teachers Associations‘ Lab Out Loud during that organization’s 2017 annual convention in Los Angeles, I’ve added it to my roster of regularly followed podcasts, a decision I was particularly happy I made when I noted that their most recent episode contained a full-length interview of Sean B. Carroll discussing his recent […]
With the recent release of the STEMxm podcast episode 23, in which Mel the Engineer discusses atmospheric physics and climate change with Dr. Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change & Environment at Imperial College, London, it appears that this always-interesting podcast will be embarking upon a trio of episodes that take climate change as their topics.