January 20, 2011


Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time: What the Hubble Telescope Saw. By Elaine Scott. Clarion. $17.99.

Your Baby Is Speaking to You: A Visual Guide to the Amazing Behaviors of Your Newborn and Growing Baby. By Kevin Nugent, Ph.D. Photographs by Abelardo Morell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.95.

Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies, and “Cures.” By David Haviland. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. $12.95.

     The nonfictional universe is a huge one – in fact, as huge as a big chunk of the astronomical universe, at least in Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time. Starting with a fictional book that will likely be familiar to many young readers – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time – science journalist Elaine Scott explores the mystery of vastly distant star systems observed by the Hubble Telescope, after first delving into some history of telescopes in general and the Hubble in particular. The notorious but now largely forgotten manufacturing error that originally made Hubble images blurry and unfocused is explained, as is the correction that made it possible for the orbiting telescope to produce the crystal-clear and fascinating views of the universe at which scientists and non-scientists alike have oohed and aahed for almost two decades. The history is well and accurately presented, but it is the Hubble photographs, and what they tell about the universe, that will attract most readers to this book. Scott delves into some difficult concepts, including the Big Bang, gravity, stellar life cycles, black holes, and the fact that the more distant an object is in space, the more distant it also is in time – and in all cases, she explains things with clarity and illustrates them with gorgeous Hubble views that quickly come to seem to be as much art as science. Beautiful to look at, filled with fascinating information and packed with behind-the-scenes stories about space exploration via telescope and the people whose lives are built around it, Space, Stars, and the Beginning of Time will whet the appetite of budding astronomers, astrophysicists and astronauts for more in-depth information on the subjects that Scott covers – and her end-of-book listing of books and Web sites will be an excellent place for the fascinated to start learning even more.

     Curiosity about the world and what makes it tick starts at birth, although what constitutes “the world” changes over time, becoming a larger and larger concept. In the very beginning of life, when a typical baby’s world includes only itself (imperfectly understood) and an adult or two (also imperfectly grasped), the infant is already trying to make sense of the world and communicate with it – according to Kevin Nugent, director of the Brazelton Institute at Children’s Hospital, Boston, and a specialist in early parent-child relations. Your Baby Is Speaking to You is Nugent’s attempt to show parents and caregivers that “your infant does come with caregiving guidelines embedded in his behavior,” although “these guidelines do have to be decoded.” This book is the codebreaker. Using a combination of excellent close-up photos by Abelardo Morell and straightforward text, Nugent explains the fine points of deep sleep (“babies with low tolerance for outside stimulation have to use a great deal of energy trying to protect their sleep”), light or REM sleep (“the eye movements…activate a gelatinlike substance that helps keep the eyes fully oxygenated”), the “fencer response” (the baby turns its head to one side, extends the arm on that side and flexes the other arm at the elbow), the smile of discovery (“she is beginning to form a model of your face in her developing cortex and is now trying to match the face before her with that vague internal model”), and much more. Nugent’s interpretations will give parents and caregivers a kind of road map to preverbal babies’ feelings. For example, Nugent explains that one reason babies yawn is to stop looking into an adult’s eyes and stop the adult from looking into theirs, “taking the lead in regulating your time together, dictating the pace and rhythm of the interaction between you.” For another example, it is a baby’s “sense of hearing that may permit the fullest communication during her very earliest days,” since babies do hear sounds in the womb and adults spontaneously adopt a style of speaking to infants that is “slower, higher-pitched, more melodic and repetitive” than everyday speech. There is nothing prescriptive here – Nugent does not tell parents and caregivers what they ought to or must do, except when suggesting that certain problems (such as nonstop crying for no discernible reason) merit a call to the pediatrician. The purpose of Your Baby Is Speaking to You is to show that communication really does start from the very beginning of a child’s life, and that adults can understand that communication is occurring – even if its precise form cannot be perfectly interpreted – by simply paying close attention to the way babies move, glance and even sleep.

     But enough of serious stuff! There has to be a place in nonfiction for ridiculousness as well – or something approaching it – and the offbeat “Why” series continues doing its best to supply fact-based absurdity. David Haviland’s Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar is the fourth book in this group, following Why You Shouldn’t Eat Your Boogers, Why Fish Fart and Why Dogs Eat Poop. That last book, although fun to read, contained some irritants – for example, it stated that snakes have no teeth (which is 100% incorrect, since all snakes have teeth), and it failed to explain why dogs eat poop, retreating behind the old “no one really knows” non-explanation. But the newest book seems more consistent and accurate. It focuses on medical matters, of which there are certainly plenty of gross ones (grossness being a matter of singular importance in this series, in case that wasn’t clear from the titles). In such chapters as “Disgusting Diseases,” “Curious Cures” and “Bad Medicine,” Haviland offers information on “chimney sweep’s scrotum” (a type of cancer caused by exposure to carcinogenic soot); why urine was used to clean soldiers’ wounds (it is usually sterile and “was infinitely preferable to some of the alternative battlefield balms”); the Guinea Pig Club (a group of burn victims treated with experimental reconstructive surgery during World War II); paraffinomas (hard, painful lumps caused by paraffin-wax injections, which were used for early cosmetic surgery, including breast augmentation); the crypts of lieberk├╝hn (glands found in the lining of the colon and small intestine); and Miss Jenny’s launderette (where condoms, which in the 19th century were made of the intestines and bladders of sheep and goats, were washed for reuse). To say this book is a potpourri is somewhat to understate the case: it is a true mishmash, in which Haviland throws in obscure fact after obscure fact, for no apparent reason other than that he finds these snippets of medical information interesting. Actually, that turns out to be a pretty good reason, since many of them are fascinating – and because the entries are uniformly short, it is easy to skip over those that are really a bit overdone and move on to ones that a reader may find a tad more pleasant to peruse. Oh – and Hamilton this time does answer the title question. The storage of unpleasant odors was done when the Black Death was rampant, a time when medicine was based on the belief that “like cures like.” In other words: “Since it was believed that the plague was caused by deadly vapors, it therefore made sense that other foul smells might help to ward off the disease.”

No comments:

Post a Comment