Staff Pick

In this book full of surprises, the main two are that sand is fascinating—and frightening. The fascinating part starts with how it’s formed. Sand is simply “loose grains of any hard material” within a given diameter; that is, about the width of a human hair. The material—seashells, coral, lava, stone, but mostly quartz—is broken down over millions of years by wind and/or water. Some sand is round, some angular. Some is almost pure and transparent, some is mixed with other elements and tinted. Beach sand isn’t the same as desert sand or riverbed sand, and each has its different uses. Mined, graded, and cleaned, sand is turned into everything from bridges and roads to skyscrapers, bottles, and iPhones—both the screen and the internal hardware. People have been using sand in construction since at least 7000 BC and in glass from the days of ancient Rome. In the Digital Age, sand—the purest silica sand—is in demand for both computer chips and fracking. Beiser’s capsule summaries of the histories of these industries are full of “wow” moments, not least of which is the almost incredible statistics: over the last century we’ve poured some 1.5 billion tons of sand and gravel into U.S. highways and today the country produces a billion tons of sand/gravel annually. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, too, is paving and building with concrete and relying on silicon chips. This is where the story of sand gets scary. World use of sand has intensified sand mining, legal and not; sparked sand disputes; caused environmental degradation that ranges from killing coral reefs to exacerbating floods (such as Houston’s after Hurricane Harvey) to drying up or polluting aquifers. Extracting sand to build more land in Singapore has “completely obliterated at least two dozen Indonesian islands since 2005,” and the cement industry is one of the world’s leading producers of greenhouse gases.  Aside from desert sand, which doesn’t lend itself well to modern uses, sand, like oil, is running out, though our need for it is only increasing—concrete may seem solid and permanent, but most concrete structures have a lifespan of about fifty years.

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399576423
Availability: In Stock—Click for Locations
Published: Riverhead Books - August 7th, 2018

Staff Pick

Pyenson is a paleontologist and “reading whale bones is what I do,” he modestly says. “Their bones all tell stories…about where whales came from.” Translated into human language, these tales are full of superlatives: whales outweigh dinosaurs and are the largest creatures ever to have lived on Earth; their fabled songs, which can travel some 900 miles underwater, are “the most acoustically powerful sound made by any organism.” These stories are fascinating for what we know—whales descended from four-legged land-dwelling animals the size of a dog —and what we don’t: when and how did they develop their tremendous sizes? What’s to stop them from getting still larger? Having survived the devastating toll of 19th and 20th-century whaling, can they adapt to climate change? Pyenson takes us through the Smithsonian’s collection of fossil mammals, the largest in the world, with attendant lessons on whale anatomy, feeding habits, migratory range, and the many mysteries particular to the different species of whales, as well as on field trips to Panama, Alaska, the Hvalfjörður whaling station west of Iceland, and the amazing Cerro Ballena site in the Atacama region of Chile. There he helped excavate four different layers of whale skeletons that research showed had been laid down in different episodes thousands of years apart during the Miocene. It was an unprecedented find, and Pyenson mines it for information about the past, present, and future of whales. But there’s only so much we can learn from bones. So far, “no one has ever recorded the beating heart of a wild whale,” Pyenson notes. May he be the first.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735224568
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Viking - June 26th, 2018

Staff Pick

The title of Cooke’s breezy and smart book is partly wishful. She starts with myths and mysteries of thirteen creatures—do storks fly to the moon for the winter? Do frogs spontaneously generate? How exactly do vultures locate their fresh meals?—looks at how natural philosophers have imaginatively answered the question, then shows how modern science has definitively come to conclusions. Or not. We still can’t account for an eel’s entire lifecycle, and in many cases human interference has created new questions, such as how we can breed pandas in captivity that will behave like wild pandas, when they only have humans or other human-raised pandas to learn from. Meanwhile, storks, famous for their astonishing 4,000-mile migrations, may be evolving not to migrate due to a combination of man-made dangers along the route and the availability of food at landfills in Europe. Whether recounting facts, legends, or speculation, Cooke is unfailingly fascinating. Standouts among her many Wow! moments: beavers don’t need water to go into a dam-building frenzy, just a recording of the sound of water flowing will set them off. Hippos are closely related to whales and practice an “amphibious communication” both above and below water, one that sounds like the clicks and ticks of whale songs. The coat of a sloth is a mini-ecosystem that supports many varieties of moths, ticks, mites, and beetles and has the “look and smell” of a tree. Cooke herself belongs to the exuberantly hands-on species of zoologist, readily tasting the beaver’s musk, a “natural vanilla,” and applying a hippo’s sun-screen slime like a skin cream. Ultimately, Cooke reminds us that the greatest danger to the truth about animals, and thus to the creatures themselves, isn’t our ignorance but the anthropomorphizing that leads us to see animals in human terms and miss what’s most important about them.

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife Cover Image
ISBN: 9780465094646
Availability: Not On Our Shelves—Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Basic Books - April 17th, 2018