Reviews

Saturday, April 01, 2000


Books

Infinite Perspectives: Two Thousand Years of Three-dimensional Mapmaking
Brian M. Ambroziak and Jeffrey R. Ambroziak
Princeton Architectural Press, $75.

Although maps represent space, not time, they mark the progress of human history like no other technology. The Ambroziak brothers, Brian M. and Jeffrey R., mapmakers themselves, have gathered examples across time and geography to illustrate the development of this important form. The collection showcases the resourcefulness with which humans deploy their spatial skills--from the simple Micronesian sailors' maps of knotted cords to the Ambroziaks' own startling 3-D images.

Military and mercantile endeavors were an important incentive to mapmaking. Romans, famous for both, numbered distances and recorded place-names with plodding accuracy but were lousy at creating maps to scale. It was not until the Renaissance, with the renewed interest in physical sciences, that mapmaking matured. The seventeenth-century Swiss mathematician Hans Conrad Gyger, for example, used the principles of trigonometry to survey the landscape and represent distances accurately.

By the nineteenth century, technical innovations in engraving and lithography allowed mapmakers to print more detail than was possible with woodcuts. William Clark's representations of the American West, created during the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804, cover vast tracts in surprisingly accurate detail.

With advances in satellite imagery and computer processing, mapmakers no longer rely on their own powers of abstraction to create comprehensive images of landscapes. Remote-sensing satellites have taken the place of human observers. Still, the challenge of gathering information and combining it intelligibly remains. If anything, this is made more difficult by the problem of distortion in images derived from data taken from only one vantage point. To overcome this problem and create maps with lots of detail but little distortion, the authors--along with their father, Russell Ambroziak--invented the Infinite Ambroziak Perspective Projection. Their maps are included in the final chapter.

The Ambroziak technique, which relies on a method developed by W. Pichel in 1973, minimizes distortion by constructing an image in which each visual unit--a pixel--is projected from its own vantage point. The mapmakers developed an algorithm that allows each vantage point to be computed in ways that produce a 3-D effect. When these pixels are combined, the resulting image contains as many vantage points as there are pixels and can be viewed from different points with little distortion. If you don the glasses included with the book and look through the final chapter, strikingly sharp 3-D images of Mars, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite will spring out at you. The technique will undoubtedly prove useful to those--like pilots or emergency rescue teams--who must learn unfamiliar landscapes.

The trajectory of techniques on display here is wonderful--moving from crude sketches to complex topographical portraits. Although the 3-D images are striking, nothing was more startling than the string map of the Marshall Islands. With nothing but shells and cord, nonliterate cartographers created a navigational chart to nearby islands. The shells represented islands, the threads between them the direction of waves that a boat would encounter. The sailors navigated their course to an island by matching the boat's angle into the oncoming wave to the angle dictated by the fibers. Now, that's ingenuity.
--Sarah Richardson

The Cockroach Papers: A Compendium of History and Lore
Richard Schweid
Four Walls Eight Windows, $16.

Cockroaches are humankind's uninvited, desperately unloved houseguests. Behind our walls, beneath our floors, and in our kitchen cabinets they court and mate, eat and excrete, live and die. Their abundance, coupled with our compulsion to eradicate them, has made roaches common research subjects. And our morbid fascination with them has spawned reams of roach-related lore. In The Cockroach Papers, Richard Schweid--whose previous books include Hot Peppers, an exploration of the culture, history, and people of New Iberia, Louisiana--blends both roach fact and fiction into an engaging, perceptive profile of our strange, and occasionally literal, bedfellows.

As Schweid relates, the familiar domestic cockroaches that we know and loathe are merely the tip of this pestiferous clan. To date, more than 5,000 species have been identified, and scientists believe that about as many remain to be discovered. This phenomenal success is due to the economy, resilience, and adaptability of their design. These hardy creatures can live for hours without oxygen; run 50 body lengths a minute; and until they reach adulthood, replace limbs lost since their last molt. The litany arouses grudging admiration.

Cockroach procreative abilities are equally astounding. During copulation, which "frequently lasts an hour," a female German cockroach--common in American homes--is passed a packet of sperm that may last a lifetime. From this supply, she can fertilize hundreds of eggs. Some species, including the basement-loving American cockroach, can reproduce parthenogenetically for a few generations.

Such notable success has spurred both researchers, who have been decapitating, boiling, grinding, and eviscerating roaches for centuries in the service of knowledge, and exterminators, who have been equally busy corralling, stomping, and spraying them out of existence. Still, they thrive. "In restaurants, I've seen it rain cockroaches for twenty minutes after we've treated," says entomologist and Über-exterminator Austin Frishman of New York City. "I've seen [cockroaches] get into dialysis machines. . . . I've seen people with no eyebrows because they were chewed by cockroaches. . . . "

Schweid's own roach encounters, as well as literary and folkloric references, serve as jumping-off points for topics from roach behavior to etymology. If you like your insects straight, you may be distracted by Schweid's travels among workers in the Mexican bordertown maquiladoras, his dealings with bead traders in Morocco, and excerpts from literature, ranging from Catalan and Polish writings to Don Marquis of archy & mehitabel fame. Though all these roads lead ultimately to the roach, most also explore the plight of the maginalized, who, like the roach, skitter on the fringes of society. --Margaret Foley

Red Atom: Russia's Nuclear Power Program from Stalin to Today
Paul R. Josephson
W.H. Freeman and Co., $26.95.

In 1986, the name Chernobyl entered the international lexicon when the Ukrainian city's nuclear reactor blew its top, unleashing a cloud of poisonous radioactivity. Doctors estimate that during the next 70 years, 40,000 people in the former Soviet Union will die as a result of the accident. For science historian Paul Josephson, Chernobyl is the culmination of a disastrous nuclear-power program founded on political pride and scientific arrogance and plagued by indifference, incompetence, and corruption.

Soviet leaders advanced science as a way of legitimizing their hold on power and seized on atomic energy as a tool to transform their nation into a superpower. Their enthusiasm for technology and nuclear energy was shared by physicists and other scientists who viewed themselves as omnipotent and infallible. Together, the two groups created a run-amok nuclear program, building giant reactors to generate electricity and engines to power cars, ships, and planes; bombing the land to facilitate mining; and bombarding with excessive doses of radiation everything from concrete (to absorb less water) to live chickens (to produce more eggs).

All the while, politicians and scientists assured the public there was no danger. The few dissenting scientists were blackballed, arrested, and sometimes shot. In fact, hazards were plentiful. Reactors were shoddily constructed by largely unskilled laborers; one group of welders learned their craft through a correspondence course. Poorly trained plant workers sometimes warmed themselves by cozying up to the reactor, and cleaning women, garbed in everyday clothing, wiped up spills with their mops. When illness and death inevitably occurred, authorities kept the tragedies secret. The fearsome results spread beyond the U.S.S.R. as well. Tests, dumping, and accidents released radioactive particles into the air and water; sixteen spent reactors from icebreaker ships and submarines were deposited into the Arctic Ocean and are probably leaking.

Although quick to criticize the U.S.S.R.'s program, Josephson is careful to distribute laurels where they're due. He freely acknowledges the brilliance of many Soviet physicists and their ingenuity in overcoming enormous challenges. One of their reactor designs, the tokamak, became an international standard. And the Soviets had such success with certain nuclear electric motors that the Americans tried to buy them.

Josephson doesn't bash just the Soviets, either. He points out other nations' mistakes and bizarre ideas as well. In the United States, one physicist proposed bombing a mountain into Alaska's Yukon River to create a reservoir and "improve" the climate there. After a nuclear blast in Nevada, the Atomic Energy Commission asked milk farmers to use only dried cattle feed until the radioactivity levels in plants (the raw material of feed) had fallen to safe levels.

Josephson's antinuke agenda is fairly obvious. But his real crusade is against blind faith. If we take the Soviet example to heart, no one again should believe that all is safe simply because governments and scientists say so. --Fenella Saunders





For more about the Rose Center for Earth and Space, see its home page at www.amnh.org/rose.

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