Reviews

Wednesday, November 01, 2000


Spanish ADVENTURER Francisco de Orellana, the first European to explore the mighty Amazon, claimed he did battle with tribes of fierce women warriors during his first journey on the river in 1542. On a return trip a few years later, his ship capsized near the mouth of the river and he drowned.

Luckily, it is possible for modern-day adventurers to experience the majesty of the Amazon without risking their necks. Indeed, visitors to a recently opened exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium can feast their eyes on the remarkable diversity of Amazon River wildlife and vegetation without even having to worry about getting eaten alive by pesky bugs.

The Shedd's Amazon Rising exhibit encapsulates a year in the life of the 4,000-mile-long river in a tour of realistic habitat displays that takes less than two hours. Aquarium visitors enter the exhibit in the low-water season when the Amazon's main channel measures one to three miles across and less than 20 feet deep. Prowling and nesting along the shallows are birds, amphibians, snakes, and a startling variety of fish, including dogtooth characins that stab their prey with daggerlike fangs, lungfish that surface for oxygen every four or five minutes, and stingrays whose lash with a venom-filled spine is more feared than a piranha's bite by the ribereños, or river people, who live in huts on stilts that sit high above the water.

A thin rain curtain signals entry to the eight-month rainy season, when the river can rise as high as 30 feet and surge nearly 20 miles into the forest on each side. Flooding waters deposit algae and tiny organisms on tree trunks, which jaraqui fish vacuum up with lips like suction cups. Three-foot long arawana fish, dubbed "water monkeys," leap up to three feet out of the water to snare spiders, frogs, and small birds on tree branches. Green pacu and other fish swim among the treetops, feasting on fruit and excreting the seeds, which renew plant life along the river. Ribereños, who during low-water season supplement their fishing with work as subsistence farmers and day laborers, now reel in catches from the waters just outside their doors.

Eventually the river recedes. The fast-falling water, which can drop 10 feet in a week, carries fattened fish back to the river, ready to migrate and spawn. Others, though, are left stranded. Killifish gather in puddles on the forest floor and lay their eggs in wet leaf litter before dying; the young hatch when the floods return. Lungfish meanwhile burrow into mud, slow their metabolism, and await the rainy season.

Amazon Rising is designed to breed a new and deeper appreciation of one of the world's most complex ecosystems and, the exhibit designers hope, a sense of urgency. Visitors are reminded at the end of the exhibit that the Amazon region has suffered more damage— from logging, burning, overfishing, damming, mining, and urban development— in the last four decades than in the previous four-plus centuries since Francisco de Orellana first glimpsed its wonders.

 


Movies

Me & Isaac Newton
A First Look Pictures and Clear Blue Sky Production
Running time: 107 minutes

Physicist Michio Kaku spends many of his waking hours in a world of abstraction, formulating complex string-theory equations that describe a 10-dimensional universe. To unwind, he laces up his figure skates and practices spins and jumps at an ice rink near his home in suburban New York. "Out here on the ice," he says, "it's just me and Isaac Newton."

Kaku is one of several scientists profiled in Me & Isaac Newton, a feature-length documentary directed by Michael Apted that explores the creative impulses that lead to pioneering research. Apted's subjects include Karol Sikora, a Cambridge University-educated physician whose work in cancer gene therapy was inspired in part by his father's death from lung cancer; Patricia Chapple Wright, a former Brooklyn housewife whose purchase of a pet monkey led her to a midlife decision to study endangered lemurs in Madagascar; and Steven Pinker, a cognitive neuroscientist who attributes his interest in the evolutionary formation and use of language to his upbringing in a highly argumentative Jewish family. In one poignant segment, 81-year-old Gertrude Elion recalls how her fiancŽ's death from a bacterial infection two years before the advent of antibiotics spurred her to become a chemist. Elion's work over the years produced 45 pharmaceutical patents, including the first drugs for childhood leukemia, and earned her the 1988 Nobel prize for medicine.

Apted's directorial credits include the latest James Bond extravaganza, The World Is Not Enough, but in this low-budget documentary he avoids fancy effects. The bulk of the film consists of talking heads. Still, Apted reveals a knack for capturing the scientists at their most poetic. Kaku, who spent part of his childhood with his Japanese-born parents in a wartime internment camp in California, uses an image rooted in his heritage to describe how he envisions the multidimensional nature of the universe. Humans, he says, are like koi gliding beneath lily pads in a pond: "They swim around oblivious of the air and the fourth dimension above the water. That is their hyperspace, detectable only when raindrops splash."
Jocelyn Selim

 


Books

Plague Time: How Stealth Infections Cause Cancer, Heart Disease, and Other Deadly Ailments
Paul W. Ewald
The Free Press, $25.

"Humans have never escaped plagues of infectious disease," declares Amherst College biologist Paul Ewald. Despite antibiotics, exterminators, and indoor plumbing, our era is no exception: AIDS, West Nile encephalitis, tuberculosis, and other illnesses regularly threaten. They may be just the tip of the infection iceberg, however. With an argument certain to stir controversy, Ewald asserts that germs are the culprits for almost every serious ailment plaguing humans today, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and arthritis. We may believe that our bodies are failing because of faulty genes or risky lifestyles or "just falling apart from the wear and tear of life," Ewald says, but really they're suffering the ravages wrought by slow-acting viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.

A cautious and conventional medical establishment has always been slow to recognize the role of infection, Ewald says, citing the histories of syphilis and, most recently, peptic ulcers. Moreover, scientists have been laggard in appreciating microbes' ability to evolve and evade our attempts to eradicate them. It's the protean nature of the human immunodeficiency virus, for example, that has made a cure for AIDS so elusive. To redress these failings, Ewald urges researchers to relax the standards of proof when it comes to identifying a causative agent, accepting "a compelling body of evidence" in place of a definitive demonstration, and granting greater weight to anecdotal evidence. As for combating pathogens, he advocates finding new ways to piggyback on the powers of the human immune system.

He also proposes some broad policy measures. Strict standards of hygiene, relaxed after the introduction of antibiotics, should be reinstated at hospitals. Employees who are sick should be urged to stay at home. In developing countries, where diseases like cholera and malaria still thrive, the emphasis should be on ensuring clean water supplies, adequate waste disposal, and mosquito-proof housing, instead of sophisticated medicine.

Although Ewald can be arrogant (he counts himself among "only a few thoughtful scientists" who have grasped the significance of infections) and sometimes play the crank (breast cancer is caught from mice), his enthusiasm for the topic is contagious.
Annie Murphy Paul

Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution
Richard Fortey
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.

At age 14, when other boys were getting crushes on girls, Richard Fortey fell completely and irrevocably in love with a fossil. As he describes it, "the rock simply parted around the animal, like some sort of revelation....The long thin eyes of the trilobite regarded me and I returned the gaze....There was a shiver of recognition across 500 million years."

Even now, Fortey's love is undimmed. A senior paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum, he has produced a fascinating account of the hard-shelled arthropods— relatives of today's horseshoe crab— that once crowded prehistoric seas. They endured through ice ages and the movement of continents until about 250 million years ago when, probably as the result of a climate change, they died out.

Trilobites came in thousands of species. There were swimmers, mud grubbers, filter feeders, and predators. The smallest trilobites were only a millimeter long; the largest, a foot or two. All had jointed legs, each of which was paired with a branchial appendage, a gill for absorbing oxygen from seawater. And their eyes, which so entranced the young Fortey, were made of calcite crystals and as tough as clamshells.

During their heyday trilobites were scattered all over the globe, and their fossil remains are an indispensable key to understanding Earth's history. Scientists know that North America, Greenland, and a bit of the western British Isles were connected in one giant landmass in great part because the same species of trilobite has been dug up throughout these regions. According to Fortey, the fossils can yield still more secrets. Modern technologies that can measure pollutants in parts-per-billion will be able to detect traces of rare elements in trilobite remains, enhancing our understanding of the chemistry of ancient seas. The fossils may even hold clues that will contribute to theories of evolution. Says Fortey: "Trilobites may emerge as the Drosophila flies of the Palaeozoic, the experimental medium for the history of life."
Deborah Hudson

We also like...

Einstein's Unfinished Symphony: Listening to the Sounds of Space-Time
Marcia Bartusiak
Joseph Henry Press, $24.95.

Journalist Bartusiak excitingly relates the hunt for proof of the gravity waves predicted by Einstein. The existence of these vibrations, also called "spacequakes," would not only confirm the theory of relativity but also allow scientists to listen to the sounds of the Big Bang.

A World for Butterflies: Their Lives, Behavior, and Future
Phil Schappert
Firefly Books, $35.

The Spirit of Butterflies: Myth, Magic, and Art
Maraleen Manos-Jones
Abrams, $34.95.

These two stunningly illustrated volumes are a must for anyone with a fondness for this photogenic insect. Ecologist Schappert's graceful text chronicles the butterfly life cycle, and writer Manos-Jones illuminates the insect's surprising place in art and religion.

Gödel: A Life of Logic
John L. Casti and Werner DePauli
Perseus Publishing, $25.

Science writer Casti and computer scientist DePauli have written a compelling biography of the eccentric genius Kurt Gšdel, arguably the greatest mathematician and logician of the 20th century as well as a believer in the occult.

Thieves, Deceivers, and Killers: Tales of Chemistry in Nature
William C. Agosta
Princeton University Press, $26.95.

Organic chemist Agosta explores in gory detail how plants and animals, including humans, hijack the chemical communication and defense signals of other species for their own purposes.

The Language of the Land: Living Among the Hadzabe in Africa
James Stephenson
St. Martin's Press, $24.95.

Landscape artist Stephenson offers a unique account, part anthropology and part adventure story, of his year with the Hadzabe, a small group of hunter-gatherers that roam East Africa.
Compiled by Eric Powell


 
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