Books Archive

Friday, May 9, 2008

Book Review - From the Ground Up

From the Ground Up Book Cover
From the Ground Up

Buy it from Amazon
I just finished reading From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer. It was written by Fred Weick (1899-1993), and co-authored by James R. Hansen. I found it to be extremely interesting (but perhaps there were a few unique reasons that made the book so appealing to me).

Fred Weick is probably not a familiar name to most people, even those involved in aviation, despite the significant contributions he's made. He's probably most well known to Ercoupe pilots - Weick designed the plane back in the '40s, and is spoken of almost reverentially on Ercoupe forums (such as the fly-in and tech groups on Yahoo). My great uncle and I share an Ercoupe (and by share - I mean he keeps it in Pittsburgh and flies it, while I get to dream about it while I'm down here in Texas). It was when I first started following along on those Ercoupe discussion groups that Weick became a name that I would remember.

Later on, after I'd started working as an aeronautical engineer, and was just getting started doing design work on propellers, while doing some research on the subject, I came across an interesting paper, Propeller design I: practical application of the blade element theory, by none other than Fred Weick. That lead me to pay even more attention to his name, and it began popping up all over the place.

Continue reading "Book Review - From the Ground Up" »

Friday, March 7, 2008

Book Review - At the Water's Edge

The full title of this book is At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea. It was written by Carl Zimmer, and as the long title suggests, is all about those two dramatic transitions of life evolving into such distinct environments. This book was great - one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a while. It was just the right blend of story telling, concepts, and evidence, and made for a very compelling read. In fact, I think I finished it in less than a week.

When I reviewed another book by Zimmer, the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, I commented that it wasn't very in depth. At only 176 pages, much of them filled with photos and illustrations, it was a little light on commentary. At the Water's Edge is very different in this regard. It's 304 pages, filled with small print, with only enough diagrams as are needed to illustrate a few key points. It's not a tome, by any means, but it certainly provides Zimmer with enough space to do this subject justice.

The book is divided into basically two halves - the first dealing with the transition from lobe finned fish to early tetrapods, and the second half dealing with the transition from mesonychids to dolphins and whales. As would be expected, both halves deal with the specifics of each of those cases - transitional forms that have been discovered, environmental pressures that would drive the transition, etc. However, mixed throughout the entire book are also sections on general theory. There's a nice section on development in the beginning, covering such topics as Hox genes and non-genetic factors; he describes exaptation; there's another section on cladistics; as well as sections on many other concepts related to evolution.

I learned quite a bit by reading this book. Even though I was already familiar with much of the general theory, Zimmer presented it in ways that made me think of things differently. He also introduced a few concepts, such as the evolutionary "quit point," that I hadn't thought of much before. Still, where I learned the most was in those specifics of the transitional forms between fish and tetrapods, and land mammals and whales.

I'll give one example of something very interesting I learned from this book. (In fact, this was the very first passage of the book that I read, when I first got it and was just thumbing through to see what it was like.) At some point, our ancestors must have developed lungs to breathe air, obviously. When we look at the world around us, most fish today cannot breathe atmospheric air - they rely on their gills to get oxygen from water, but also have organs similar to lungs called swim bladders, which they use to regulate their buoyancy. From that observation, you may be tempted to think that lungs are a modified swim bladder, which perhaps evolved to allow fish to survive in swamps or other oxygen poor environments. After all, what need would an ocean going fish have of lungs? I know that's what I had thought, but as it turns out, it's almost certainly wrong.

Continue reading "Book Review - At the Water's Edge" »

Friday, February 22, 2008

Book Review - Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins

I already posted a brief review of this book in my review of the Lucy's Legacy Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I don't really have much to add, but I thought I ought to at least give that review some closure, since I'd only read 2/3 of the book when I wrote it. I also figured this would give me a good chance to get the review into my Books section.

The book is the Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, by Carl Zimmer. I liked it. It's not very in depth - it only took me about one weekend to read the whole thing - so if you follow science news, you probably won't learn a whole lot from it. That's not to say you won't learn anything - I certainly did learn a few things from this book, but most of the information was a review of what I alread knew.

But, it does have lots of pretty pictures that make it worth the price. And I mean that in the best possible way - paragraphs are all well and good, and it would be impossible to teach evolution with nothing but glossy pictures, but it can be nice to have a page full of pictures of fossil skulls, to see with your own eyes the similarities and differences. Sometimes pictures do show things more clearly than words ever could. Plus, if you don't follow science news as much as I do, or happen to know a person who doesn't know much about human evolution, it makes for a very good overview. If someone doesn't want to read the whole thing, but they're willing to listen to you explain something to them, you can still use the book, and open it up to some of those pretty pictures to help illustrate your point.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle

In honor of Darwin Day, I figured I'd post a review of The Voyage of the Beagle, which I just recently finished reading. The edition I read was actually the one from The Folio Society, given to me as a gift, and not the one pictured at right from Amazon. The book is also available as a free download from Project Gutenberg as a text only version, or as html with pictures, or from The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online.

There are many reasons to like this book. One can't ignore the historical importance, since this expedition gave Darwin much of the insight that would lead to developing the theory of evolution, but this book would still be interesting even if Darwin had gone on to do nothing after sailing on the Beagle. The book is basically the journal of a young man on a round the world voyage, visiting much of South America, Tahiti, Australia, and a few other places, describing all the different cultures, geographies, and animals that he encountered.

For this review, I'll quote heavily from The Voyage of the Beagle, letting Darwin speak for himself, to give the reader a better idea of the language of the book. But first, let's get the somewhat confusing background out of the way. Darwin went along on the second survey expedition of the HMS Beagle. The first expedition, begun in 1826, consisted of two ships, the larger HMS Adventure, captained by Phillip Parker King, and the smaller HMS Beagle, captained by Pringle Stokes. Stokes committed suicide near the end of the first expedition, and 23 year old Flag Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy was named as temporary captain of the Beagle. On the second expedition, begun in 1831, only the Beagle returned, and as FitzRoy had proven himself well enough as temporary captain on the first expedition, he was given command of the ship for this second expedition. Worried about becoming depressed and suffering the same fate as Stokes, FitzRoy invited Darwin along for the journey so that he could have someone to talk to. As survey expeditions, the main purpose was acquiring data to produce nautical charts. Darwin had a slightly different agenda, as a naturalist, collecting many samples of the flora & fauna and taking many notes along the way. After the expeditions' completion, a four volume account was published, titled, Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle. The third volume of this narrative was written by Darwin, and titled, Journal and Remarks, 1832--1835. Darwin's volume proved to be so popular that the publisher, Henry Colburn of London, decided to publish it as a stand alone book, renamed, Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. The book was published several more times under several different titles, but is most commonly referred to today as The Voyage of the Beagle.

Continue reading "Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle" »

Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review - The Frog Princess

At my daughter's request (read begging), I recently read The Frog Princess, by E.D. Baker. The book is the first of a series, and I've already promised my daughter that I would read the whole series, so I will post a full review then, and this entry will only be a short review. (Maybe - depending on how the rest of the series shapes up, the final review might not be all that detailed, either.)

This is definitely a children's book - between the Harry Potter, Eragon, and Golden Compass series of books, I've been reading quite a bit of young adult fiction recently, and this book is nowhere close to the level of any of those books. So, don't expect too much. Personally, I thought it was predictable, the characters rather one dimensional, the story not too well developed, and some parts just plain corny, but it was still entertaining, had a few humorous parts, and at least it didn't take very long to read. BUT, I'm not the target audience. My eight year old loves it, and has gone on to read the other books in the series. She's just finished Once Upon a Curse, and started on No Place for Magic. But, keep in mind that she's not reading it entirely voluntarily. For school, she has a weekly reading log, and must read for at least 100 minutes a week for full credit. Still, a few weeks, especially when she was nearing the end of Once Upon a Curse, she's read for longer than she's had to, just to see what was going to happen in the story. I've also heard her laugh out loud a few times while reading the books, and a few times she's liked a passage so much that she's asked me to read it.

So, I guess the verdict is that if you're looking for a book for a child that's graduated from some of the simpler early readers (like the Junie B. Jones series), but isn't quite ready for young adult fiction, yet, then this series may be good for them. It's certainly rated very high on Amazon, and my daughter very much enjoys it. However, it's been so long since I've read any other children's fiction (like one of my favorites as a kid, Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It), that I don't really know how it compares to what else is out there.


Selling Out