Did You Know? (Bat Edition)

That the bumblebee bat is the world’s smallest mammal?

I found this information on page 175 in the book The Secret Lives of Bats by Merlin Tuttle. The name bumblebee bat is actually a nickname for the Kitti’s hog nosed bat from Myanmar (Burma). It was discovered in 1973-74 and weighs a third less than a United States penny! These bats are only about an inch long.

Bats by Phil Richardson tells about bats’ lifestyles and life cycles. He explains about the different classes of bats and that the Kitti’s hog nosed bat is considered one of the 930 species of ‘microbats.’ This book has excellent photos of many bats. The children’s book Bat Watching by Diane Bair and Pamela Wright has helpful information about removing bats from buildings and where to look for them for viewing. The Magic School Bus DVD has a ‘Going Batty’ episode where you really learn what it is like to be a bat: how they see with sonar, what they eat, and how they take care of their young.

On the other end of the spectrum is the world’s largest (baseball) bat. 1,000 Places to See Before you Die by Patricia Schultz shows the huge baseball bat outside of the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in Louisville, Kentucky. I’m sure it will be much easier to see than the bumblebee bat, plus you won’t have to travel as far!

Smithsonian Baseball Treasures by Stephen Wong has a very interesting history of baseball bats and other items. For example, in 1885 a flat bat was used to aid in batting techniques like bunting. There is a great photo of Babe Ruth kissing his bats before the start of the World Series September 29, 1926. Combining both kinds of bats is Bats at the Ballgame by Brian Lies.

Lastly, baseball has a bat boy (or girl), but the world of super heroes has Batman! Here at the library we have The Batman Strikes, Going… Batty! by Bill Matheny. In this exciting graphic novel Batman fights a bad guy that turns into a bat.

Listening in the Rain

Looking up at the sky it is hard to deny that fall has arrived. While those who worship the sun may start to mourn, and those who secretly welcome the return of the big dark rejoice, one thing is certain: yard work abounds. The no longer dormant grass is making a comeback, trees and bushes are in need of trimming, and the weeds just keep coming. For me, one of the side benefits of spending all that time in the yard maintaining order is the added hours I have for listening to audiobooks. The only downside is that if the audiobook is really good, I find myself getting drenched as I stubbornly refuse to come in from the rain since I have to know what happens next.

The library still has a fine collection of audiobooks on CD, but I’ve been getting into the digital eAudiobooks lately. Basically it comes down to ease of use, a.k.a I’m lazy. The idea of actually having to put in another CD to continue listing seems like way too much work. This from a man who used to happily flip audio cassettes in his Walkman back in the day. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that the process for downloading eAudiobooks from the library has actually gotten much easier. Both cloudLibrary and OverDrive have apps that are pretty simple to download to your device. I usually use my phone to listen and I’ve found that OverDrive’s new Libby app works quite well.

So if you want to take the plunge and start listening to eAudiobooks, here are four that I have enjoyed and are well worth your listening time:

Malice by Keigo Higashino
While showing clear influences of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, featuring an impossible to explain murder of a man in a locked room no less, this mystery is in a class by itself. The how of the crime is important, but the why is what really piques the listener’s interest. It is essentially a game of cat and mouse between the suspect, author Osamu Nonoguchi, and intrepid police detective Kyochiro Kaga. The story is told from both men’s perspective and the narrator, Jeff Woodman, expertly gives each character a distinctive voice and tone.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Jason Dessen is content with his seemingly average life as a husband, father and physics professor at a small college in Chicago. One night he is kidnapped and drugged by a mysterious individual. He wakes up to find himself in a place that is familiar but just not quite right. Thus begins a long strange trip into the quantum multiverse, with alternative versions of the present and all that could have been. The one constant is Jason’s desperate attempt to get back to the wife and child he loves. The story is expertly narrated in a style akin to a film noir voiceover by Jon Lindstrom who draws you into the story and keeps you grounded.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
While a book describing the elements of the periodical table might seem off-putting to some, you would be making a mistake to dismiss this work as a dry academic tome. Instead it is a series of curious, exciting and dangerous tales of the elements and those who discovered them. Give this eAudio a listen and you will hear stories about the manic quest for absolute zero, the dangerous fashion for ingesting mercury capsules, and why Godzilla was vanquished by a cadmium tipped missile. The narrator, Sean Runnette, brings all this rich scientific history to life with impeccable pronunciation and a nice dollop of irony.

The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
Set in the same dystopian future as The Girl With All the Gifts, where a mutant fungus has turned most of the population of the United Kingdom into ‘hungries’, this novel is a prequel of sorts. It follows the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Rosalind Franklin, a mobile research vehicle, whose mission is to try to find a vaccine or cure for the dreaded disease plaguing humanity. While the plot may seem somewhat familiar, it is the character development that really stands out in this series. Each character is well crafted to the point where you actually care if a bite gets taken out of them. Finty Williams’ narration brings the characters to life (with their varying accents, ages and genders) and makes this work a great listening experience.

So in the brief periods between rain showers, get out there and weed with a good eAudio book. Don’t be surprised if you end up getting wet though.

Did You Know? (Woodpecker Edition)

That a woodpecker’s ‘tongue’ wraps around its brain to act as a shock absorber when it pecks on trees?

I found this information on page 16 in the book Woodpeckers of the World by Gerard Gorman. Technically, it is the cartilage and bones inside the tongue called the hyoid and an inwardly curved maxilla (an overhang of spongy tissue) that functions as a shock absorber. Their skulls can experience shocks of 1200 G (force of gravity), whereas a human is typically concussed at 100 G or below! This book shows all the species of woodpeckers and their habitats. There are a great many species located here in the Northwest.

Imperial Dreams by Tim Gallagher and The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose are about the Imperial and the Ivory Billed woodpeckers which are both endangered and/or presumed already extinct. There have been rumors of sightings, but nothing has been documented. You could join the birdwatchers trying to catch a glimpse of these giant birds…. and be famous if you got a photo!

We have The Russian Woodpecker on DVD. It’s a film by Chad Gracia who follows eccentric artist Fedor Alexandrovich. Alexandrovich reveals to the world an enormous secret weapon, suspected to be for mind control, that stands in the shadow of Chernobyl and makes a woodpecker type noise on a specific radio frequency heard all over the world…. After going on for years, the noise had stopped right after the Chernobyl accident, but is now back on the air! Fedor’s conspiracy theory is that the reactor was deliberately destroyed as a grand cover up because the ‘woodpecker’ was supposed to be inspected by the Russian government the next month, and it would have failed.

Finally, growing up, we always looked forward to watching cartoons. Woody Woodpecker was always one of my personal favorites. We have Woody Woodpecker and Friends Holiday Favorites on DVD so you can remember just what a character he was and introduce him to your family.

Did You Know? (Lobster Edition)

That in 1880s Massachusetts servants went on strike so they wouldn’t have to eat lobster more than 3 times a week?

I found this information on page 215 in the book Good Eats, the Early Years by Alton Brown. This book is based on his TV series that explains the science of different foods, with lots of tidbits and trivia facts. Alton also gives very good instructions for preparing and cutting up a lobster, as well as a recipe for Stuffed Lobster.

The New York Times Seafood Cookbook edited by Florence Fabricant has many lobster recipes. I actually can’t wait to try my hand at making the Lobster Thermidor or risotto. For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to get or use fresh lobster, 200 Best Canned Fish & Seafood Recipes by Susan Sampson has recipes for Lobster Newberg, Lobster in Américaine Sauce and Shortcut Lobster Thermidor.

We mainly think of lobsters as an expensive delicacy but, back in the day, they were plentiful and cheap. As yummy as any one food can be, too much of a good thing can be very tiresome. Craving: Why We Can’t Seem To get Enough by Omar Manejwala, M.D. explains the science of why we crave certain things. Let’s just say it has a lot to do with neurotransmitters, serotonin, enkephalins, and norepinephrine. The author has lots of advice on how to break the cycles of addiction and craving.

Lobsters are crustaceans that belong to the larger family of arthropods. There are more than a million species of animals, and 3/4 of them are arthropods. Lobsters and other Crustaceans is a good book from the World Book’s ‘Animals of the World’ series. This children’s book explains all about lobsters being decapods (10 legs), their exoskeletons, molting, breeding and almost everything else you ever wanted to know about them! Animals Without Backbones by Ralph Buchsbaum gives even more details about these fascinating creatures.

And lastly, The Lobster is a funny movie about finding love… The story centers on David, as he searches for love at an exclusive resort. But, there’s a catch: you have 45 days to find love or you will be turned into an animal of your choosing!

Gallows Humor

Of the many, many great reasons for using the library, one of my favorites is being able to ‘impulse buy’ a book. Since there is no cost involved, I can throw caution to the wind and select a book based on its cover, size, title or any other bizarre criteria I fancy. While there is definitely fun to be had selecting a book after thorough research and vetting, randomly finding a great book seems twice as sweet.

Recently, I made just such a discovery after coming across the intriguingly titled And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens if You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon or Go Barreling Over Niagara by Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty. While the book definitely delivers some gruesome and snarky fun, it also provides a surprising amount of science to back up the macabre scenarios. I actually ended up learning a lot about fluid dynamics, nuclear fission, physics and, of course, human physiology among many other ‘serious’ topics.

This effective combination of gallows humor and scientific inquiry is down to the two authors. Cody Cassidy is a sports reporter and editor who lets you know that “He has no firsthand experience with any of the scenarios described in this book.” Paul Doherty is the senior staff scientist at San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum and has a PhD in solid state physics from MIT. Their collaboration produces some truly hilarious and surprisingly scientific writing on gruesome, bizarre and outright implausible ways to end your existence.

How implausible you ask? Well let’s start with the simply unlikely: What would happen if…  (Illustrations by Cody Cassidy from the book)

You Were Attacked by a Swarm of Bees?

You Were Struck by Lightning?

You Were in an Airplane and Your Window Popped Out?

Now let’s graduate to the currently impossible. What would happen if…

You Jumped Into a Black Hole?

You Stood on the Surface of the Sun?

You Time Traveled?

And finally, my favorite category, the totally absurd. What would happen if…

You Were Strapped into Dr. Frankenstein’s Machine?

You Were Raised by Buzzards?

You Were the Ant Under the Magnifying Glass?

To give away the answers would be to spoil the fun, but as the book title suggests, the answers to all these questions tends to end with “And Then You’re Dead.”

One final note, whatever you do don’t skip the footnotes when reading this book. Some of the most entertaining bits are contained therein. In the chapter titled ‘What Would Happen if You Put on the World’s Loudest Headphones?’ the footnote to a sentence on sound pressure waves reads:

These pressure waves dissipate in the air as heat, and though yelling doesn’t produce enough heat to be a health risk, if you hollered at a cold cup of coffee that was in a perfect thermos, your cup would be hot and ready to drink in a year and a half.

So if you feel like learning while laughing, and don’t have a weak stomach, definitely check out And Then You’re Dead. If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, there is no need to fear. There are plenty of other titles in the collection to ‘buy’ on impulse. No purchase required.

To Boldly Go….Remotely

When it comes to space travel, both real and imagined, all the attention tends to focus on human expeditions. We see ourselves in a snazzy space suit, preferably with a laser blaster at our side, exploring and colonizing the moon, the planets, and the galaxies beyond. In reality, except for a brief foray to the moon, we haven’t gotten very far. Robots, on the other hand, have been tooling around the solar system and beyond for many years now, dutifully beaming back invaluable information and images for us to enjoy.

A current and spectacular example of robotic exploration is the Cassini mission to Saturn. Cassini has started the final phase of its almost 20 year mission, which has been dubbed ‘the grand finale.’ The probe will be doing a series of tight orbits of Saturn, being the first probe to go between the famous rings of Saturn and the planet proper before ‘completing’ its mission by plunging directly into the planet itself. I was hoping Cassini would be getting a nice retirement, maybe to a farm upstate somewhere, instead of a fiery death, but science is not big on sentimentality, alas.

After gorging yourself on Cassini information, you might want to take a step back and explore the other missions, the importance, and the history of robotic space exploration. The library, as always, has your back. Here are a few resources to get you started on your journey to the final frontier.

Dreams of Other Worlds: the Amazing Story of Unmanned Space Exploration by Chris Impey and Holly Henry
The number of robotic missions in the past 40 plus years makes for quite a long list. Thankfully the authors of this excellent work don’t simply try to run down that list in telling the tale of unmanned space exploration. Instead, they focus on a few key missions and their importance. The Viking and ongoing MER (Mars Exploration Rover) missions to Mars are each given a chapter as well as the Stardust mission to collect samples from a comet. The less glamorous but scientifically invaluable space telescopes Spitzer, Chandra and Hubble are also covered. Throughout the authors impart a sense of wonder and demonstrate the way these missions continue to change our view of the universe and our place in it.

Red Rover: Inside the Story of Robotic Space Exploration, from Genesis to the Mars Curiosity Rover by Roger Wiens
While the incredible results of robotic missions are rightfully lauded to the skies, the actual nuts and bolts of getting the mechanics to work and the mission to succeed are often glossed over. Red Rover is a great corrective, with the author giving you a fascinating behind the scenes view of several missions that he has worked on. With the shift away from manned missions beginning in the 1990s, primarily due to cost, robotic missions had to be nimbler and rely on more creative engineering to get off the ground. Wien’s experience demonstrates the triumphs and failures of this endeavor and the general DIY spirit of the teams themselves. If this book piques your interest about the Mars Curiosity Rover, definitely check out some of the other works the library has on the mission.

One of the oldest, launched in 1977 no less, but still ongoing robotic mission is the Voyager program. Currently the Voyager 1 & 2 probes are hurtling through the heliosphere in interstellar space sending back invaluable data and pushing the boundaries of human exploration. For a rundown of the mission itself and the team that continues to work on it, take a look at The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Mission by Jim Bell. For a wider view of the mission and how it fits into humanity’s continual quest for discovery definitely check out Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen Pyne. If you are more visually inclined, take a look at the DVD produced by the BBC titled Voyager: to the Final Frontier. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Voyager mission is the message that was put in it to be discovered  by any extraterrestrial life that might happen upon it. The contents of that gold-coated copper phonograph, it was the 70s after all, can be found in Murmurs of Earth: The Voyager Interstellar Record put together by the people who selected the items meant to represent us, including Carl Sagan.

While it is a bummer that most of us will not be heading to the stars anytime soon, it is a great time to enjoy all the great discoveries and images that our robotic proxies are beaming back to Earth. Plus it’s nice not to die of radiation poisoning. Just saying.

Brains from the Deep

Everyone seems to have a favorite nominee for ‘smartest animal.’ Many prefer the much-lauded chimpanzee or dolphin, but crows, elephants, parrots, pigs, dogs, cats, rats and many other species all have their supporters. Recently, there have been studies that champion a somewhat less relatable animal: the octopus. Unlike some of the other nominees, the octopus is truly an alien-looking creature that lives for only a few years. How then can it be intelligent? Luckily for those wanting to understand, a few great new books have come out that answer that question and raise even more interesting ones about the nature of intelligence, consciousness and the limits of human understanding.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

soulofoctopusSy Montgomery really loves octopuses. Specifically she develops an admiration and affection for Athena, Octavia, Kali and Karma, the four individual cephalopods she interacts with at the New England Aquarium. She also expands her quest beyond the aquarium and goes out into the wild to encounter more octopuses in their natural habitat. She becomes convinced of their intelligence: An intelligence that goes beyond the scientifically measurable, such as puzzle solving and the like, to also include feelings of playfulness, friendship, happiness and tenderness on their part. While Montgomery’s utter devotion can produce a risk of ascribing human traits to her subjects a little too easily, it is hard to deny that there seems to be some sort of consciousness in the octopus mind after reading this book.

Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith

othermindsWhile no less a devotee of the octopus, Godfrey-Smith takes the long view when examining the intelligence of this fascinating creature. As a philosopher of science, he is well placed to delve into the evolutionary history of cephalopods and the octopus in particular. While mammals and birds are closely related on the tree of life, the cephalopods deviated very early on in our evolutionary history, so much so that they are almost a separate evolutionary ‘experiment’ in intelligence. The author isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions: What kind of intelligence do octopuses possess? Is it alien from our own? Can we understand it? While doing this, Godfrey-Smith is no armchair philosopher, however. The book is also full of real world examples of his dives and encounters with these intelligent creatures that drive home his arguments.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? By F.B.M. de Waal

smartenoughDe Waal’s goal, in this well written and engaging book, is nothing short of toppling humankind from its lofty, and self-appointed perch at the top of the intelligence and cognition scale. In fact, he argues we shouldn’t think of intelligence as a scale at all, but rather as a bush with cognition taking different forms in each branch, none necessarily higher than the other but always unique. It is an intriguing argument, which he backs up with many observations of the animal world that he has gleaned in his role as an animal behaviorist at Emory University. He is quick to point out the cases of wishful thinking and pure chance (Paul the octopus did not actually know anything about soccer despite his correct predictions during the 2010 World Cup alas) but he does provide convincing examples of animal intelligence using scientific and rational methods.

So is the mysterious and alien looking octopus conscious and intelligent? Based on these excellent books and in the words of the Magic 8-Ball: As I see it, yes.