June 19, 2014


Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places. By Donna M. Jackson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $9.99.

The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds. By Matt Adrian. Blue Rider Press. $15.95.

     The image of scientists wearing white coats and spending their days doing minutiae in laboratories filled with glassware and microscopes is given the lie, again and again, by the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, which in Extreme Scientists shows just how wrong the clichéd notion of science can be. Originally published in 2009 and now available in paperback, Donna M. Jackson’s book focuses on three scientists whose work is very much outdoors and very definitely risky by most people’s standards. Paul Flaherty is a hurricane tracker; Hazel Barton searches for microbes that live deep within caves; and Stephen Sillett studies life high in the sky by climbing redwoods in the United States and scaling giant Australian eucalyptus trees. Flaherty is a meteorologist who flies aboard planes that go into hurricanes to measure the storms and learn enough about them to make understanding and predicting their paths easier. His matter-of-fact descriptions of the three types of radar the plane carries, and of the fact that wind shear is more dangerous than wind speed, are accompanied by his comments that “the rewards of hurricane hunting far outweigh the risks” – a sentiment that Flaherty shares with field scientists in general. Barton, who has explored ice caves in Greenland and underwater caves in Mexico, is a discoverer of multiple new microbial species and would surely agree that the substantial risks she takes are worthwhile. And there are certainly plenty of them: among the photos showing her rappelling and wading through water is one in which her arm is in a sling, the result of a boulder breaking loose in a New Zealand cave. “After surgery and thirty-seven stitches, Hazel soon returned to caving,” writes Jackson. As for Sillett, the photos of him and other scientists climbing enormous trees are dizzying, and so is his story of almost dying in a fall from a giant redwood when his line passed over a broken branch that he had no way to see from below. What is amazing about all these scientists is how devoted they clearly are to their work and how little they consider themselves risk-takers – although they are acutely aware of the risks of their work. Yes, there are straightforward laboratory elements to these scientists’ work – Barton, for example, grows cave microbes in a traditional-looking lab so she can study them as their colonies expand. But anyone looking for excitement in the real world will find plenty of it here, all in the service of advancing the scientific understanding of our planet and, perhaps, others as well: discoveries in Earth caves can help indicate the likelihood of the existence of some sort of life on Mars.

     Thank goodness scientists do not need to investigate the denizens described in The Mincing Mockingbird Guide to Troubled Birds. This is a strange little 64-page book that looks like a gift book but that it is doubtful most people would want to give (or receive) as a gift. It is laid out like a library book that has been pulled permanently from the shelves, with a trompe l’oeil front-inside-cover pocket for a circulation card and the word “discard” looking as if it has been stamped near the title; the word “withdrawn” looks as if it is stamped on the inside back cover. The brainchild, if that is the right word, of Matt Adrian, the book contains drawings of various birds in various close-up poses, saying various things (or having various things said about them) that almost make sense, but not quite. “He had a violent, uncontrolled temper, which sent him literally insane when he was annoyed, but he was good-looking.” “‘This is wonderful!’ ‘This is going to be fine!’ ‘I love this!’ I was soon to change my mind, however.” “The ability to remain sober and gracious is, indeed, a form of mild insanity.” A few pages have headlines that are then followed by short paragraphs; among the headlines are “Baby, Not This Again,” “Chicken Cannot Abide Flinchers,” and “This Is a Bird Feeder, Not a Chinese Buffet.” The last page of the book is called “Bird Attack Statistics 1974” and also includes four decidedly odd “Study Questions,” the second of which, for example, is, “What species of bird makes its nest in the body cavity of a dead bird?” The humor of the book may be clear to some, for whom it will have a (+++) rating, but it will be obscure or simply missing for others, for whom it will be a (++) book. And that, as part of one page’s headline notes, “is being mighty generous.”

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