Reviews

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Books

Ravenous Lords of a Lost World

Disappearing man-eaters could signal an ecological collapse

By Sy Montgomery

 

Monster of God
The Man-eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind
By David Quammen,
W. W. Norton,
$26.95

A dozen maneless lions lurk within a 2,000-foot-long cave in southeastern France. A finely detailed mural drawn on a wall of the deepest chamber of the Chauvet Cave, the "Lion Panel" depicts a lion pride eyeing its Paleolithic prey: bison, rhinos, a horse, a mammoth. They could just as well be staring at us. Surely, at least occasionally, humans were on their menu too.

These ancient portraits of what may have been the largest lions that ever existed, Panthera spelaea, tell us much about an extinct species, and even more about our own. Creatures of supreme stealth and majesty, the 1,000-pound carnivores were clearly revered, perhaps even worshipped by the artists who drew them in ocher and charcoal 30,000 years ago. Alas, the landscape is now bereft of them and many of their kind. As David Quammen explains in Monster of God, we have turned the tables on the world's great predators and are rapidly killing them off—despite, or ironically, because of—the powerful role that large carnivores have played in the human imagination. Murdered by poachers and robbed of their habitats, these ferocious animals could be gone from the wild within eight human generations.

Why does it matter? Eradicate the predators and we face what one expert calls ecological meltdown: a cascade of extinctions and environmental collapse—a world, as Quammen puts it, overrun by a "pestilence of nibblers, cropping the vegetation down to stubs." A similar catastrophe awaits the human spirit, he argues, if we eradicate the world's last man-eating beasts. These monsters, like God's mighty Leviathan in the biblical book of Job, thrill, horrify, and humble us. In our prayers as well as in our nightmares, they remind us that we are not lords of the world.

This is not an easy truth to swallow in modern times. But there are still people who express the awe immortalized on the cave walls of Chauvet, and many of them populate the pages of this sweeping book. Ion Dinca, a 60-year-old Romanian shepherd, understands that brown bears can threaten his sheep and his life. Yet he calls his sometime nemesis podoaba padurii, "the treasure of the forest." "If you lose this," he tells Quammen, "you lose the treasure. A forest without bears—it's empty." In northern Australia, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a member of the Gumatj tribe, portrays the endangered saltwater crocodile, Crocodylus porosus, as a quasi deity-cum-ancestor. "We believe that we came as a crocodile," he says. "When our body's dead, gone, our spirit becomes crocodile. . . . Every one of the tribal lands that we own from our forefathers were created and given to us once by a crocodile."

Monster of God swarms with characters who illustrate the paradoxes of our modern relationship with predators. A Romanian gamekeeper provides Carpathian brown bears for rich hunters to kill—a job that "combines the services of a nanny, a zoo attendant, a field naturalist, a sniper's spotter, and a pimp." A taxidermist pickles crocodile heads for the Hell's Angels. Sometimes, though, the tables are turned. At a roadside pilgrim shelter in Rudraprayag, India, a leopard pads silently among 50 sleeping people, selects one slumberer as its victim, then pads out, unnoticed, with its prey in its jaws. As befits the title, the book boasts monsters aplenty, including Grendel from Beowulf, and Humbaba, "with a face like coiled intestines," from the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh. These mythical monsters illustrate the humbling lesson that wild man-eaters enforce with their appetites: Humans, too, are made of meat.

Who will offer this lesson once the big predators are gone? Today another lion species, Panthera leo persica, nears the same fate as the cave lions of Chauvet. The lions of Gir, the remnant of a population that once stretched from Greece to India, today number about 320. The inspiration for Quammen's book, these lions survive confined almost entirely to one wildlife sanctuary in western India, sharing their meager 348,000 acres with 300 herding families and several busy Hindu temples. At one of them, Quammen examines a strange painting on the wall, in which a bearded holy man in a loincloth guides a bullock cart full of firewood. But the bullock has escaped its shackles—a lion has taken its place. "A lion harnessed to a load of dead trees," he writes, "feels too much like an allegory of the future."


 
Books

Early Paleolithic art was once best known for its crude depictions of the female figure. That changed in 1994 with the discovery in France of the Chauvet Cave, within which prehistoric painters portrayed fantastic scenes of galloping horses, dueling rhinos, and bloodthirsty lions. This art, collected in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times by Jean Clottes (University of Utah Press, $45), not only predates by 15 millennia the earliest comparable cave paintings in Europe but is also notable for its creators' mastery of perspective, composition, and narrative technique. Among the photographic reproductions of their artistry are images of insects and human hands. Scattered bear skulls, including one with a stalagmite growing from its top, litter the floor of the cave. What the Chauvet art means is still mysterious. In Paleolithic times, the main entrance to the cave, which has since fallen in, had a magnificent view of the valley below—a great spot for human hunters lying in wait for their prey.

— Eric Powell


 
Places

Urban BioBliss
There are bugs in them thar bushes

Central Park BioBlitz
June 27 and 28, 2003
www.explorers.org/nycbioblitz/

New York's Central Park might strike the casual observer as a strange spot to celebrate biodiversity. A brief stroll yields frequent sightings of Canis familiaris (the dog) and Columba livia (pigeon), as well as occasional glimpses of Equus caballus (horse) and Rattus norvegicus (rat). Homo sapiens is ubiquitous, of course. But most visitors would be surprised to learn that last year scientists from the American Museum of Natural History discovered a new species of centipede—a half-inch-long 82-legged carnivore named Nannarrup hoffmani—nestled in leaf litter. And it takes an experienced bird-watcher to spot the warblers and screech owls that periodically find a haven in the park.

Jim Carpenter and young explorer Henri Reiss-NaVarre bag a ferocious wasp in the wilds of Central Park.
Photograph courtesy of New York's Explorers Club.

New York's Explorers Club believes that the park is a haven for far more. To prove it, they gathered together 350 scientists and volunteers in June to comb its 843 acres for every single species of plant, animal, and fungus found within—a 24-hour BioBlitz timed to coincide with the park's 150th anniversary. One of the seekers was Jim Carpenter, curator of entomology at the natural history museum and a specialist on the wasps, bees, and ants of the order Hymenoptera. A self-styled expert on "patio trauma," Carpenter has hunted wasps in 50 countries on three continents. "I do most of my work in the tropics," he says. "But I'm a big fan of the idea that you should also study biodiversity in your own backyard."

Clad in a many-pocketed jacket, armed only with a long-poled net and several tubes of cyanide gas for pacifying captive prey, Carpenter strode off into the undergrowth accompanied by a gaggle of grad students and curious onlookers. For four hours, the ponytailed entomologist waded through banks of tall grass and prickly bushes in search of his stinging quarry—even stopping, briefly, at the boathouse restaurant to examine the garbage bins. By the end of the day, he and his entourage had caught 15 species of bee and 5 separate species of wasp, including the European paper wasp and a fearsome queen yellow jacket trapped by his wife, Amy Davidson, a fossil preparator.

And that was the least of it. At last count, the combined teams had identified 867 species, including 393 separate plants, 51 species of bird, 44 sorts of fungi, 10 types of mammal, and 11 species of fish. Sylvia Earle, the renowned oceanographer, had seen a snapping turtle, some sludge worms, and assorted algae during a dive into the boating lake. Others had found bats, bullfrogs, a red-tailed hawk, a fathead minnow, a tufted titmouse, and a great egret. Not bad for a park surrounded on all sides by concrete and asphalt.
— Josie Glausiusz


 
Books

Water, Water, Everywhere
A giant model calibrates the drops California drinks

By Tim Folger

The San Francisco Bay and Delta Model Bay Model Visitor Center

2100 Bridgeway
Sausalito, Calif. 94965
www.spn.usace.army.mil/bmvc

A cavernous waterfront warehouse on San Francisco Bay houses a huge model of local waterways that embodies the legacy—and demise—of a dream. Fifty years ago, an ex-schoolteacher named John Reber proposed an audacious engineering project that would have forever transformed the bay. He and his backers wanted to build two gigantic dams, one between Oakland and San Francisco and another a few miles northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge, a project they believed would yield an enormous annual gain in liquid assets. Almost 800 billion gallons of freshwater otherwise lost each year to the sea would instead irrigate farms and slake urban thirst. So in 1956 the Army Corps of Engineers built a working scale model, which revealed that evaporation from the dammed lakes would have exceeded the amount of freshwater that escapes into the bay without dams. In short, Reber's plan would have been a disaster.

While few people now remember Reber, the model that doomed his dream survives. The San Francisco Bay and Delta Model, as it's called, is located in Sausalito, a tourist-encrusted town just across the Golden Gate Bridge. Model hardly seems the right word for this colossus. The landscape, dominated by shimmering pools of water, is built on top of 286 five-ton concrete slabs and covers the equivalent of two whole football fields. The scene simulates the bay's appearance from altitudes ranging to 12,000 feet, making a viewer feel a bit like Gulliver looking down on rivers and marshes where tides ebb and flow and currents swirl beneath a six-and-a-half-foot-long Golden Gate Bridge. Computer-controlled pumps send freshwater into the model in 14-minute tidal cycles, about 100 times faster than real lunar tides.

A lilliputian version of the Golden Gate Bridge that is 1/1600 the length of the real thing spans a model of San Francisco Bay.
Photograph by Sian Kennedy



Until 2000, engineers still used the model as a research tool to study the effects of pollution, dredging, oil spills, and any other phenomena, natural or human, that could affect the bay. Computer simulations now give better results, and no more than six people run the whole show. The bay model itself has become an educational center that should be—but isn't yet—mobbed with visitors.

While the mechanical details are fascinating, a self-guided audio tour allows for a much richer experience. One could spend hours immersed in the intricate ecology and economy of the bay, circumnavigating the model from Berkeley on the east shore to a point that coincides with what can be seen 17 miles out in the Pacific due west of the Golden Gate. Visitors learn that the bay's currents flow through ancient valleys submerged when melting glaciers flooded central California 10,000 years ago, that its rivers now provide drinking water for more than 20 million people, and that it takes 700 gallons of water to manufacture one cheeseburger (most of which is needed to grow the grain that feeds the cow). They will learn that without water siphoned from the bay's tributaries most of southern California would still be the desert that the conquistadores encountered when they arrived 234 years ago. Take that water away and the nation would lose its biggest agricultural producer. From an economic standpoint, the bay is far more important to the state (and the nation) than Silicon Valley or Hollywood.

Ultimately, what the bay model demonstrates is that we don't really live in cities or states. Those are human inventions. We inhabit a liquid web of rivers, bays, tides, and seas. Every city should have such a model to remind us, if only for a few hours, of our true place in the world.


 
Television

Nova
The Elegant Universe

PBS, October 28 and November 4, 2003

Superstrings can seem so obscure that it's tempting to think of them as strands of cosmic spaghetti. Physicist Brian Greene prefers to portray them as finely tuned cello strings, in an ambitious three-part PBS miniseries that takes on the task of unraveling string theory. This grand—and grandiose—hypothesis postulates that all the elementary subatomic particles in the universe consist of unimaginably small vibrating strands or loops, with different "notes" determining the identity of each particle. The series rivals string theory itself in its thoroughness, tracing the origins of the wiggling-threads idea all the way back to Newton's theory of universal gravitation. Some of the explanatory devices are a bit strained, as when Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is illustrated with a "Quantum Café" where customers can never be sure their order will arrive. Nevertheless, this is a truly accessible take on a famously inaccessible concept.

— Elizabeth Svoboda


 
Gizmos

PAiA Theremax Kit
$89.75
www.paia.com

In 1920 a Russian engineer named Léon Thérémin invented an instrument like none other before. The thereminvox or theremin was the world's first electronic instrument and the only one that could be played without being touched. Inside it were radio tubes that produced oscillations at two sound-wave frequencies beyond the range of the human ear; together, they produced an audible signal. To change the pitch, a player waved one hand toward or away from a vertical antenna on the right. Waving the other hand around a horizontal loop on the left adjusted the volume.

The instrument was an instant success, and avant-garde orchestras rushed to embrace its unearthly sound, a cross between a violin's rich tone and the squeal of loudspeaker feedback. Even after its inventor disappeared into the Soviet gulag in 1938, the theremin could still be heard swooping through many 1950s sci-fi movie sound tracks and even in the Beach Boys' 1967 hit "Good Vibrations."

For years the theremin was, however, extremely difficult to master. But now it is undergoing a small renaissance among musicians, in part due to the availability of inexpensive build-your-own theremin kits. The best-regarded of these is the PAiA Theremax, which replaces the original's vacuum tubes with an integrated circuit board. This makes the instrument smaller, cheaper, and easy to build. The Theremax also incorporates an output port that can send the sound to a computer, allowing players to modify the signal to produce variations weirder than Léon Thérémin could have ever dreamed. Rachmaninoff may be out of reach for most, but the Theremax is fine for rock, blues, and jazz, or any genre in which being precisely in tune is not strictly necessary. It's also a spectacular conversation piece. Those who have heard the strange history of the theremin will soon be eagerly contorting their arms in a wild attempt to play it themselves.

— William Jacobs


 
Books

Into the Silent Land
Travels in Neuropsychology

Paul Broks,
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

The shuttered eyelid gracing the cover of this slim book invites readers to enter a silent realm. Behind it lies the human brain, a damp lump that, neuropsychologist Paul Broks writes, "has a solid rubbery feel and would carve like a very tender tuna steak." Over the years, scientists have described how the brain responds to prodding, what kind of chemical and electrical reactions take place within it, and what happens when it malfunctions or is altered by surgery. Yet much about it is still murky. How can this mute organ generate the powerful sense we have of ourselves, of a conscious someone dwelling inside?

Broks's elegant essays, like those of Oliver Sacks, tackle the problem through anecdotes from his clinic and operating room. A woman whose epilepsy induces random periods of zombielike behavior is left with inexplicable gaps in her memory. A patient profoundly troubled by a feeling that she no longer exists is still able, strangely, to talk about it. Stuart, injured in a car accident, sits passively in the same spot all day, ignoring the list of tasks his wife gave him before she left the house. It's not Stuart's memory that was destroyed but his ability to experience any sense of urgency or emotion. Stuart in his lassitude seems barely conscious, but how much more so is Michael, whose emotions went into overdrive after he fell from a tree? Michael feels deeply about everything but seems to react without a moment's reflection, chattering like a magpie when he is happy or weeping and offering his wallet to beggars he passes in the street when he is sad.

In Broks's essays we encounter people whose entire sense of self has been excised, leaving behind a shell. Where does this sense reside in the brain? What is it like to be one of these people? Despite his 15 years as a clinician, Broks is flummoxed. "I . . . can give no satisfactory account of how the brain generates conscious awareness," he concludes. Though mind is an inextricable element of human existence, it remains, in the end, an enigma.

— Laurence Marschall


 


Science Best-sellers

1. A Short History of Nearly Everything
By Bill Bryson,
Broadway
2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach,
W. W. Norton
3. Isaac Newton
By James Gleick,
Pantheon Books
4. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
By Simon Winchester,
HarperCollins
5. Alpha & Omega:
The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe

By Charles Seife,
Viking Penguin
6. The Universe in a Nutshell/The Illustrated A Brief History of Time (boxed set)
By Stephen Hawking,
Bantam
7. Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
By John Derbyshire,
Joseph Henry Press
8. Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, and What Makes Us Human
By Matt Ridley,
HarperCollins
9. The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number
By Mario Livio,
Broadway Books
10. DNA: The Secret of Life
By James D. Watson with Andrew Berry,
Knopf
Exclusive to Discover from Barnes & Noble Booksellers

 

We also like... Books

Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form
Michael Sims,
Viking, $24.95

Did you know that the Milky Way is named after breast milk spilled by the Greek goddess Hera? Read Sims's compendium of facts about the body and you'll find out why we blind ourselves every four seconds by blinking, as well as why the navels of overweight hairy men collect the most lint.

Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection
Mark Pendergrast,
Basic Books, $27.50

Pendergrast's chronicle spans the ages, from the use of natural black glass reflectors by Neolithic Anatolians in 6200 B.C., in what is now Turkey, to the giant iridium-coated mirrors on NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which capture light from objects billions of light-years away.
Maia Weinstock


 




Books: The official Chauvet page: www.culture.gouv.fr/ culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/index.html.

Television: Need a primer before you leap into The Elegant Universe? Check out superstringtheory.com.

Gizmos: Download a desktop theremin: www.bbc.co.uk/science/playground/theremin1.shtml.

Find all things theremin at www.thereminvox.com. Also look for Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, a 1995 documentary about the instrument's inventor.
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