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.

Modern Cat Lady: 2016 Edition

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Another year, another litter of cat books!

Not so long ago I decided to fully embrace the cat lady stereotype, but with a twist. I wasn’t going to have too many cats to count, or think of my cats as my children, or come to work every day covered in cat hair. Or dress like the amazing Julie did for Halloween this year.

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No, I was going to Instagram on Caturdays, wear adorable kitty-print clothes and accessories, and generally keep my claws in but my spots visible. Did that make any sense? That’s okay. I’m defining the modern cat lady stereotype as I go, so chances are I may change it again tomorrow. But one thing that stays the same is the fact that there are just certain books that appeal to cat ladies (and gents) like me. Here are a few of my favorite feline-friendly books published this year.

Cat-egory: Picture Books
Year after year, there is no shortage of picture books featuring felines frolicking. This year, though, we got a couple of standouts. On the surface, Cat Knit by Jacob Grant is a book about a cute cat who loves yarn and is dismayed when that yarn is taken away, only to be returned as an itchy sweater the cat is now expected to wear. But dig a little deeper and you get a wonderful story of friendship, and how change doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. When it comes to They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel the name of the game is perspective. A cat walks through the world (breaking my #1 rule of cat ownership: never let your cat outside!–more on this later) and every creature it passes recognizes it as a cat. But the cat’s size, shape, and even colors change depending on whether the viewer is a flea (that cat is HUGE and all fur) or a bird (tiny, fluffy little dude). It’s a fun way to challenge young kids to think about how they might see things differently than someone else.

Cat-egory: Art
There’s definitely more than a little overlapping appeal between picture books and art books. Take for example Pounce by Seth Casteel. Imagine a kitten. It’s adorable, right? And totally spastic? Imagine dozens of them leaping around from page to page, living that sweet fuzzy kitten life. These pages of macro photographs by the genius behind Underwater Puppies never fails to put a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I mean, are you kitten me?! And then there’s Shop Cats of New York, written by Tamar Arslanian and photographed by Andrew Marttila. It would be easy to dismiss this as a rip-off of the popular Humans of New York. If you look at it as a case study of cats living in workplaces it’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to work in a place that had its own cat (or cats!) and how employers would deal with allergies and potential liabilities. But if I concentrate really hard I can block that part of my brain and just get sucked into the ultimate modern cat lady fantasy.

Cat-eory: Health & Wellness
Every great modern cat lady wants to be sure her cat companions live long, healthy, happy lives, right? The mechanics of keeping cats are pretty straightforward: give them food, water, space, something to play with, and attention (on their terms, of course). But what about weird behavior that might start suddenly and throw you for a loop? What’s a girl to do? Pick up CatWise by Pam Johnson-Bennett. Pam is a certified Cat Behavior Consultant. Yes, really! And while that might sound a little silly to you, consider that Pam offers advice on topics ranging from getting your cat and dog to get along to picky eating and everything in between. You can pick through the Qs & As to get to your specific issue(s) or just read it cover-to-cover and realize how “normal” your cats really are!

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Cat-egory: Philosophy 
If you find your life lessons and worldly quotes go down easier with a healthy dose of mind-blowingly adorable cat photos, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Life Works Itself Out (And Then You Nap) by Keiya Mizuno & Naoki Naganuma. I’m kind of floored by the depth of the text here in a book I mistook as humor. Advice is paired with stories and quotes from inspirational (and sometimes surprising) figures. For example, don’t fear conflict shares a story from Steve Jobs about how he was persistent and insisted that the engineers find a way to shave off boot time on the Macintosh computers. He didn’t take “no” for an answer, and sometimes that is the absolutely correct thing to do. Even if it’s difficult and causes conflict where it would otherwise be easier to coast and not deal with said conflict. There are dozens of other tidbits that might give your life a boost. Your soul will definitely feel lighter just seeing all those cuddly little cats page after page.

Cat-egory: Nature 
So here’s the serious section. As Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything so clearly illustrates in this except from the episode on animals, we should never, ever let our cats outside. When you adopt a cat from a rescue organization like Purrfect Pals (which is where I found all my cats) you promise that yours will be a forever home and that you will keep your cat 100% indoors. While it’s true cats live longer, healthier lives when kept indoors it’s also true that letting them roam around contributes to species overpopulation (and those cats born feral live short, terrible lives BTW) as well as species extinction (think: birds). Cat Wars: the Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella dives into these important topics and more in the book Jonathan Franzen calls, “Important reading for anyone who cares about nature.” Do you care? Time to read up!

Cat-egory: Humor
Okay, we made it through the heavy section so here’s your reward! For a funny look at some real-life kitties you’ll want to check out All Black Cats Are Not Alike by Amy Goldwasser and Peter Arkle. Set up like an identification guide, each cat gets a page of text and an adorably illustrated portrait. I have a soft spot for black cats, as they are so difficult to get adopted out and my black furball, Tonks, is pretty much the happiest cat ever. For poems with a sense of humor you’ll want to open up I Could Pee on This, Too by Francesco Marciuliano, which pairs photos of different cats with hilarious poems like this one:

The Box
The box is a toy
The box is a bed
The box is a hiding space
The box is a home
The box didn’t mean a damn thing to me
Until the other cat claimed it
The box is now my fortress
That I will defend to the bitter end

So that wraps another year of publishing aimed at modern cat ladies like me. Until next year, please enjoy these photos of my furry little goofballs without whom my life would definitely be less chaotic and happy.

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Reading Trendy: Collected Biographies of Women

Hypercolor T-shirts. Scrunchies. Slap bracelets. Spandex bodysuits. Mood rings. Tight-rolled acid-wash jeans. Trends come and go, and not just in the fashion world. The literary world has its fair share of trends as well. Right now we’re experiencing one I can only call wondrous, as collected biographies of trailblazing women are gracing our shelves and checking out at the speed of light. Without further ado I am pleased to introduce you to some rad women.

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Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella
Even if it might not have seemed like it at the time, these women have helped repave the path for women in the world, whether they be gay, straight, political, artistic, or the first woman in space (looking at you, Sally Ride). Each biography contains the basics, like birth/death years and a brief overview of her life. But we get to dive in even deeper with personal quotes, notes on each woman’s legacy, and illustrations. This book is aimed at teens, which is great so that kids today have some positive role models outside the Kardashian family. I would have loved a book like this when I was growing up. But don’t let the targeted age group sway you: this book is still entertaining and empowering enough for adults too.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science–and the World by Rachel Swaby
This was the book that started it all. I’d owned a copy for nearly a year before I finally started reading it this summer. Friends, I tell you I learned more useful information reading Headstrong than I think I did in all of high school. Sorry Mrs. Klaus, it’s true! You’ve probably heard that silver screen legend Hedy Lamarr was an inventor whose radio guidance system helped lay the groundwork for wifi and Bluetooth. But have you heard of Lise Meitner (nuclear fission), Marie Tharp (created the first scientific map of the ocean floor), or Marguerite Perey (discovered the element francium)? What about Alice Ball? She was from Seattle and developed a groundbreaking treatment for leprosy. This book is designed so that you could read one chapter each week and end up with a year of scientific geniuses dancing through your subconscious.

Remarkable Minds: 17 More Pioneering Women in Science & Medicine by Pendred E. Noyce
Sad but true: this book looks like a textbook and that could let it slip under your radar. But what it lacks in outward appearance it makes up for in substance. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, but it goes deep into her life providing photos (or paintings, if our lady lived pre-photography), diagrams relating to her field of work, and a timeline of major world events alongside her personal achievements to give everything context. Out of all the books mentioned here, this is by far the most detailed.

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Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
This book is beyond gorgeous. It’s truly a work of art and author/illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky clearly has immense talent. We all judge books by their covers even if we try not to. There’s something so appealing about a colorful, intricately decorated book that makes me sit up and take notice and I know I’m not the only one. So if your goal is to get kids interested in a book about women scientists, this is absolutely the way to do it. Even the endpapers are breathtaking! Since it’s aimed at children the passages are brief and more of a general overview of each woman, but wow, what design! Definitely don’t miss this one.

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs
The beloved (at least by me!) author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is back with something completely different. Here Sam Maggs introduces us to the rad ladies of science that history sometimes has a tendency to overlook. I can’t say too much about this since it’s a book we still have on order. It was originally set to publish mid-October but the publishers have since moved it up to…this past Tuesday! Once our copies are in you can believe they will be flying off the shelves faster than you can say STEM!

It’s reassuring to realize that when you check out one of these books you’re only going to have to read one book, but you’ll read dozens of biographies of some truly incredible women. This is one trend I hope never ends.