Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

My husband and I moved to Texas ten years ago so that I could pursue my Ph.D. in biological anthropology at UT. I was (and still am) interested in the ecology and behavior of nocturnal prosimian primates (i.e. the cute little ones). I wanted to know how some species hunted insects and if the size of external ears and other morphological characteristics of the auditory system were evolutionary evolved adaptations to insectivory and if a reliance on insects as a food source played a role in the earliest primate origins and evolution. My all time favorite primate is the unique, and in my eyes adorable, Daubentonia madagascariensis commonly known as the aye-aye, inspired this line of inquiry. I was very tempted to title my dissertation “My Little Primate, What Big Ears You Have!”.  I have to mention that my best friend Leiellen gave my beloved aye-ayes the very unflattering sobriquet of bat opossum. 

During my program, I discovered that I was no longer quite ambitious or driven enough to devote myself to going full throttle after what few jobs there were in academia and in doing all the things that I would have to do to get there. My heart was no longer in it and it really showed. Academia no longer made me happy nor did it give me a sense of satisfaction that I was doing something that had a deeper meaning, had a lasting impact, was important, made a difference, etc.  I loved having the opportunity to teach and share my fascination with primates and the beauty and elegance of science with others but teaching well has less value than publishing large numbers of papers and securing lots of grant dollars.  The great thing about librarianship is that every day is full of moments where you help people discover and learn all sorts of different things. 

Even though I am no longer in science I still love reading books about different scientific fields and research. Ah, so you think books about science are all dry and dusty tomes? Au contraire! There are truly talented authors that can take good and often complex scientific ideas and research and bring these stories to life so that anyone, including nonscientists, can become totally engrossed in the story. A good science story is as exciting as any adventure tale that has ever been written! 

Two of the authors that I feel are particularly talented are Natalie Angier, a scientific writer at The New York Times and author of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, and Mary Roach, whose latest book is Packing for Mars although I believe that Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers is my favorite. Both authors have a great sense of humor and I think that helps them tell the stories so well. Angier’s goal was to write a basic primer of scientific literacy so that the reader is able to acquire a firm basic understanding in a number of areas. She argues, and I agree, we need this basic understanding so that we can evaluate the information that we are bombarded with on issues as global warming.  Roach has a more multidisciplinary  approach in her exploration of what would it take for humans to realistically travel to Mars.

Because of my background, I especially enjoy books about evolutionary biology and since it is Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday on February 12th, you could celebrate by reading one of the books we have about evolution. You could read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which is wonderfully written but rather full of delightfully florid Victorian prose. A great basic and concise primer is Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, exceptionally well-written also but the florid prose is at a minimum. We also have two brand new titles you can check out: The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization, by Geerat Vermeij and Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, by Brian Switek.

Of the two books, I like Switek’s best. Vermeij, after an excellent and clear discussion of adaptation in the natural world takes a leap (and he is not the first person to ever do so) and begins to apply the principles of adaptation to cultural phenomena. I have always disliked talking about culture and other nonbiological systems in this way because I feel that it leads to the dangerous justification of Social Darwinism. I just don’t buy it. Switek’s book not only examines the growing body of fossil evidence that has accumulated in science Darwin’s time but he also looks at the scientists and how they made their discoveries. It is such an enjoyable armchair historical journey!

Try to stay warm this week with a great book about science or any good book. Don’t forget to join us here at the library for our author event for Lake Travis Reads, “An Evening with Ben Rehder” on Wednesday, February 9, at 7:00 pm.

Happy Reading!

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