Friday 5: Branching Out in Popular Science Literature

This is an insect blog.  Nearly every post I’ve ever done has related to insects somehow.  I do that on purpose because I like insects.  I like them a lot.  Some might even say I like them too much.  But ultimately, entomologists are biologists and biologists are scientists and most of us have interests in fields of science outside of entomology.  I have quite a few in fact, something that those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably noticed.  For today’s Friday 5, I’m going to do something a little different and share my five favorite science books that have little or nothing to do with insects.  I think these books are excellent examples of great science writing and I enthusiastically recommend any of these to people who want to read a good scientific story.  In no particular order, they are…

dark banquet coverDark Banquet by Bill Schutt

As my Tweeps have probably noticed, I have a thing for bats.  I can’t even explain why I like them so much – I just do.  Honestly, I bought this book because of the bat on the cover (I absolutely judge books by their covers and this policy has served me well!) and the fact that the author is a bona fide bat biologist.  But, oh!  It’s so much more than a book about bats!  You’ll learn all about mosquitoes and horse flies and leeches and how blood feeding animals are able to prevent being detected as they feed and how they keep blood flowing when they find a tasty animal to feed on.  This is also the only book on today’s list that’s written by an actual scientist rather than a science writer.  I read a lot of books written by scientists, but few reach the level of accessibility and entertainment that this one does.  And did I mention that there are bats?  :)

tapir's morning bath coverThe Tapir’s Morning Bath by Elizabeth Royte

This book is partly the story of a science writer who decided that going to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to write a book was a good idea, and the result is absolutely marvelous. Royte’s approach was rather unique.  She wanted to write about science and scientists, so she went to Panama’s Barro Colorado Island and offered her services as a free field hand.  Living and eating with scientists, going to their daily meetings, and working with them in the field gave her a rather unique insight into how biological research is actually done. This book describes the effort and long hours biologists put into their research, the highs and lows of biological field work, and the moments of pure elation that biologists experience, and it does so in a beautifully written, engrossing way.  The book celebrates biology in all its messy, frustrating, and thrilling glory.  Read it!

Galileo's daughter coverGalileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel

I can’t even remember why I bought this book, but I’m so happy I did!  Dava Sobel is a phenomenal science writer and it was this book that introduced me to her work.  The story tells the well-worn tale of Galileo and his groundbreaking astronomical discoveries for the thousandth time, but Sobel gives the story a unique voice: Galileo’s elder daughter, a Catholic nun.  Galileo and his daughter were very close and had a sort of symbiotic relationship throughout Galileo’s life, the father supporting his child through patronage of her convent and bringing her news of the outside world while she supported and encouraged her father’s work in astronomy.  If I didn’t know it was a true story, based on a large collection of letters found after Galileo’s death, I would have thought this was historical fiction.  And while you’re happily reading through a truly good yarn, you learn about how Galileo came up with his ideas, the work he did in astronomy, and his eventual incarceration and defamation at the hands of the Catholic church.  A fabulous tale about an extraordinary scientist who changed the world.

species seekers coverThe Species Seekers by Richard Conniff

I am fascinated by the Victorian age and the huge influence the natural historians of that time had on our understanding of modern biology.  This book is about the early species seekers, the scientists and ordinary people who traveled the world, sometimes at great risk of death or dismemberment, to catalog, collect, and describe species in the far reaches of the globe.  It’s an engaging tale, one full of odd characters, bitter rivalries, triumphs, and disappointments (as most books about biologists should!) that sucks you in and makes you want to keep turning the page.  It’s also fascinating to read about how the discovery of the gorilla shook our understanding of what it meant to be human and how Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary ideas changed the world.  This is a really well written book about an extraordinary time in science history, and one I think everyone should read.

secret life of lobsters coverThe Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson

I’ve actually mentioned this book before, but I love it so much that I’m going to talk about it again.  This, to me, is one of the best examples of popular science writing on the market.  It seamlessly blends stories about lobster fishermen and the scientists who study lobster biology with stories about the lobsters themselves.  Lobsters are surprisingly interesting animals, and lobster fisherman/biologists are too.  This is a great read!  I know I’m going to sound very nerdy for saying so, but I had a hard time putting this one down.  It’s that good!

I still have many, many more science books I’d like to read in my lifetime, so I’m sure my favorites will change over time, but any of the books above make for excellent reading for anyone with an interest in biology or science in general.  Would anyone else like to recommend a popular science book?  There are so many great books out there!  I’d love to get a few more recommendations, so leave comments below!


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Friday 5: Books That Just Might Make You Fall In Love with Insects

The enormous and wonderful Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend!  This year I’m helping out by manning an insect station in the Science Pavillion with some of my students and the head of Insect Discovery.  Because the entire University of Arizona campus currently looks like a refugee camp tent city and everyone has books on the brain, it seems only fitting that I do another book post.  Besides, I read a lot.  A whole lot.  I often prefer reading to everything else I might do in my spare time and I blast through lots of books each year.  My taste is quite broad and I often switch back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, mixing classic literature with modern masterpieces.  Naturally, I read a lot of insect books.  For today’s Friday 5, I’m going to share 5 insect appreciation books for the masses that have a great potential to make you fall in love with insects – assuming you’re not already.  :)

For love of InsectsFor Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner

Eisner is a well-known and highly respected entomologist.  He’s done some brilliant studies that are now considered classics of entomological science and he ranks among the best entomologists of all time.  This book is a memoir of sorts, a recounting of a life as an entomologist and biological researcher.  It’s also a sort of love letter to the 6 legged animals that Eisner has dedicated his life to.  It’s a fantastic book!  You’ll learn about some of the cool things insects do, but you’ll also walk away with a better understanding of entomologists and discover why we love what we do so very much.

life in the undergrowthLife in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough

If you aren’t familiar with Sir David Attenborough’s enormous body of work, you really should be!  He’s been involved in some truly inspiring works of biological film and has drawn the public’s eye to the natural world in a way few other people ever have.  Life in the Undergrowth is a companion book to his excellent television series of the same name.  The book introduces you to the world of invertebrates through excellent writing and colorful, vivid imagery.  Excellent read!  And when you’re done, you should watch the TV series.  It’s stunning!

Bugs in the system

Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum

May Berenbaum is another well-known and well-respected entomologist!  She does great research, heads an entomology department (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and is the founder of the fabulous Insect Fear Film Festival.  She also has an amazing sense of humor and is an incredibly entertaining speaker.  I love all of Berenbaum’s books, but this one is particularly good because it highlights the many ways that the insect world collides with ours, for better or worse.  It’s geared toward non-entomologists, but even entomologists can benefit from reading this wonderful book.  It’s funny, engaging, and educational – definitely worth the time to read!

Life on a Little Known Planet by Howard Ensign Evans

This book is a bit older, published in the 60’s and updated in the early 90’s, but is considered a classic of entomological writing for the masses and remains popular.  Evans takes readers on a journey through the world of insects, focusing on specific groups in each chapter.  His prose is marvelously well crafted and he describes insect mating habits and flight abilities with the skill of a poet.  And if that isn’t enough to convince you to read it, the dedication gives you a really good sense of what the book is like: “This book is dedicated to the book lice and silverfish that share my study with me.  May they find it digestible!”  Read it.  Love it.  Share it with others.  You’ll be glad you did!

A Walk Around the PondA Walk Around the Pond by Gilbert Waldbauer

Last but not least we have Waldbauer’s excellent tribute to the aquatic insects. Now I’m a little biased, but I think this book is marvelous!  The book is divided into easily digestible chunks of information so that you’re never overwhelmed by a barrage of information.  As you read the book, you’ll collect a vast store of short stories that you can share at parties and other social gatherings to entertain your friends.  (Non-entomologists do that, right?)  The writing style is highly accessible to non-entomologists and brings the biota of ponds and streams to life in an engaging way.  Plus, aquatic insects are fascinating, but few people know much about them.  This book helps remedy this sad state of affairs!  It’s well worth a read.

So those are my top 5 insect appreciation books.  Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend?  There are a lot of excellent insect books out there and I’d love to get some suggestions for what to read next!

(If anyone has an opportunity to attend the Festival of Books this weekend, I’ll be at the Insect Discovery table in the Helios Science Pavillion on Sunday afternoon.  Fellow bug blogger Eric Eaton, author of the fabulous Kaufmann Field Guide to Insects of North America, will also be at the Festival as part of a panel called “Southwest Dangers: Things That Sting, Bite, Poison … and Kill!” Saturday at 2:30 in ILC 130.  He will be signing his book afterwards.  Justin Schmidt, creator of the famous-among-entomologists Schmidt Sting Pain Index for bees, ants, and wasps, will also be a part of the panel.  Between the two, it promises to be good!)


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Friday 5: Great Insect Books

I am a huge reader.  I read everything from sci-fi to classic Brit lit to non-fiction science books and everything in between.  I have a massive collection of books, but if a book is good enough to claim a space in one of my 8 large bookcases, it’s likely there for life.  This also means that every time I move (which has been much more often than I expected since I moved to AZ), I lug around at least 30-40 heavy boxes of books.  As you might expect, my friends love helping me move.  :)

Today I thought I’d highlight a few gems in my collection of insect books.  Narrowing it down to 5 is nearly impossible – I have so many!  I narrowed my choices to books that will be of broad interest to non-entomologists as well as entomologists, but even that was hard.  So, I mentally lumped books into categories and chose my favorite in five categories:

In the category “Old Books,” the winner is Entomology for Beginners: For the Use of Young folks, Fruit-Growers, Farmers, and Gardeners by A. S. Packard

Entomology for Beginners coverI have a thing for old science books.  There’s something so elegant about the lyrical way early biologists described the natural world.  It is so poetic!  So I own a lot of old biology books.  I have had my copy of Entomology for Beginners since I started college as an undergrad.  It was well loved by at least 6 different people before me (their names are written on the inside front cover) and it is even better loved now!  My 3rd edition was published in 1899, so it is over 100 years old.  I love this book largely for its gorgeous engravings of insects, engravings that have become classics of entomological illustration.  The information is, of course, very outdated and a lot has changed in 111 years, but it’s also very entertaining to read what people thought about insects in 1899.  I just discovered that this book has been scanned and re-released by several different groups, so you can actually buy a new copy of this book on Amazon (link above), or an old used copy like mine pops up from time to time.  I think it’s worth at least a look.

In the category “Insect Photography/Art,” the winner is Night Visions: The Secret Designs of Moths by Joseph Scheer

Night Visions coverIf you’ve never taken a good, close look at a moth, you’re probably missing out!  Those often drab grey or brown fluffy insects are actually quite beautiful.  If you don’t believe me, Joseph Scheer’s stunning book will help change your mind.  Scheer pioneered a means of scanning moths at very high resolution using a high end flatbed scanner.  In the process, he produced some truly inspired moth images.  And these things are really high resolution!  I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Scheer’s images at an art museum a few years ago and they looked as fantastic as 3 feet tall museum pieces as they do in the book.  My dog went through a horrifying book eating phase for a while when I first got him and one of the 50 or so casualties was my copy of Night Visions.  I bought another one immediately because I just couldn’t live with a copy that was imperfect.  The images inside are too great to be marred by a lack of cover and mangled spine.

In the category “Aquatic Insects,” the winner is A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell

Dazzle of Dragonflies coverIn some ways, this book is similar to Night Visions in that it is full of images of scanned insects.  However, this book is so much more than an art book!  More than any other book, this one expresses my fascination for/love of dragonflies and it’s clear that the authors both love their subject.  The book is gorgeous and very well illustrated with crisply captured dragonfly images, but it’s also got great text.  This book brings together a wide variety of information about dragonflies, from their life histories to “oding” to photographing dragonflies to building water gardens to attract dragonflies to your yard.  The chapter on dragonfly cultural entomology is fantastic!  And, the information in this book is scientific, yet wholly accessible to non-scientists.  It’s the perfect book for someone who wants to know more about dragonflies, but doesn’t want to read a field guide or the dragonfly behavior bible.  I love this book, though I did not replace this one when the dogs nibbled on one end of the spine.  Sigh…

In the category “Insect Non-Fiction,” the winner is The Dangerous World of Butterflies by Peter Laufer

Dangerous Lives of Butterflies coverMy husband bought this book for me for my birthday last year and I started reading it the same day.  I barely put it down until I finished!  The book is essentially a series of stories about people who interact with butterflies.  It begins with a tale of a butterfly farm in Nicaragua and ends with the inspiring story of the captive rearing program for a highly endangered butterfly from the Bay Area of California.  There are stories about butterfly smugglers, conservationists attempting to save the monarch overwintering grounds, and people who raise butterflies to be released at weddings.  I have long thought that butterflies are completely over-hyped and I consider them terribly wimpy insects, but the book was fascinating and made butterflies seem so much more interesting.  I highly recommend this one!

In the category “Non-insect Arthropods,” the winner is The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson

Secret Life of Lobsters coverOkay, okay.  I made this category up specifically so I could put this book on my list because it is one of my all-time favorite books.  I love lobsters (live, not to eat – they’re are on my list of animals I don’t eat), so I snatched the book up when I found it on the bargain rack of a local bookstore.  I was hooked by the second page!  Like the butterfly book, this is a sort of story book, a deftly crafted tale of lobsters and the people who love them.  However, it focuses on two main stories that are intricately linked and meld together into one narrative: lobstermen and lobster researchers.  The narrative discusses what scientists have learned about lobsters – their mating practices, their movements, their distributions and abundances – and how Maine’s lobstermen have contributed to our understanding of these remarkable animals.  It also discusses how lobstermen have self-regulated themselves for the last 100 years, setting up socially and culturally enforced rules to protect both the lobsters and the livelihoods of those that hunt them.  This book is highly engaging and tells the story of the lobsters in such a way that you almost forget you’re reading non-fiction.  Seriously, I couldn’t put it down.  I bought several copies and gave them out to aquatic biologist friends.  I’ll read it several more times over my lifetime.  It’s that good!

Hope you enjoyed my list this week!  If you have your own favorite insect or arthropod book, I’d love to hear what they are.  Leave a comment below!


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