Marian Koshland Science Museum
Corner of Sixth and E Streets, NW
Washington, D.C. (202) 334-1201
Courtesy of Marian Koshland Science Museum
They glisten like gigantic pearls, but these globes evoke the opposite of opulence: Each of the 126 red dots sprinkled across their surfaces represents a region that is or soon will be feeling the effects of climate change. For example, much of low-lying eastern Maryland is vulnerable to flooding, Bangladesh “is projected to lose 17.5 percent of its land if sea level rises about 40 inches,” and East Africa may experience an upsurge in malaria cases if warmer, wetter weather prevails. The row of five globes, each two feet in diameter, forms part of Global Warming Facts and Our Future, one of three new exhibits at the recently opened Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Created with a $25 million endowment from biologist Daniel Koshland, the sleek, compact museum aims to bring to life the many reports that the National Academy of Sciences presents to Congress. Each of the three exhibits—the others are Wonders of Science and Putting DNA to Work—is light-years beyond the old moldy-dodo-in-a-diorama tradition. Much of the material in Global Warming, for example, is projected on sliding plasma screens. The focus on interactive video allows a faithful simulacrum of the museum to exist online and facilitates shipping exhibits around the country. “We figure exhibits will stay here just two or three years, then go on the road,” says exhibits director Peter Schultz. Suddenly, traveling to D.C. to tour the museums seems so 20th century. Soon, one way or another, the Marian Koshland Science Museum will come to you.
The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution
By Richard Dawkins, Houghton Mifflin, $28
During the past few decades, zoologist Richard Dawkins has earned his share of admiration and condemnation. At his best, he is Darwin’s most brilliant modern defender and extender, revitalizing evolutionary biology with such piquant coinages as “selfish genes” and “memes,” their cultural equivalent. At his worst, he is a haughty ideologue who launched his 1986 best seller, The Blind Watchmaker, with the absurd declaration that our existence is “a mystery no longer” because the theory of evolution had solved it. In fact, neither Darwin nor his heirs have solved the enormous puzzle of how life began on Earth.
Fortunately, Dawkins has curbed his zealotry and backtracked a tad in The Ancestor’s Tale. The most modest and winning of his eight books, it depicts evolution not as a sterile endgame but as a marvelous adventure, enigmatic in origin, that teems with riddles large and small. Borrowing the narrative structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Dawkins guides us on a pilgrimage backward through life’s history. On the way, we pause at critical junctures to rendezvous with common ancestors, such as the tiny shrewlike creatures that outlived the dinosaurs and spawned our primate forebears.
The bulk of his book consists of tales about living species that join us at each meeting point, including the aye-aye, a grub-digging lemur from Madagascar; the axolotl, a Mexican salamander that retains juvenile gills throughout life; the mudskipper, a crawling, jumping, tree-climbing fish; and the oddball catfish Synodontis nigriventris. The last swims upside down, grazing on the surface rather than the bottom of ponds; its name, the second half of which means “dark belly,” refers to the fact that its camouflage pattern is the opposite of that seen in most fish. In this case and others, Dawkins conjectures, speciation began with a behavioral innovation that spread, fadlike, and only later became genetically fixed. Other exotic creatures inspire reflections on more general topics: the impact of female sexual choice on male bodies and behavior, the contribution of plate tectonics to biological diversity, and the viability of notions such as race.
In telling these tales, Dawkins demonstrates the extraordinary power of evolutionary theory to answer the myriad questions posed by life. In a recurrent theme, he explains that molecular rather than anatomic comparisons are filling in gaps in the fossil record and revealing surprising linkages between species; they show, for example, that we humans share more genes with bacteria called archaea than they do with other bacterial species. But Dawkins also dwells, refreshingly, on those conundrums that have resisted scientists’ best efforts at understanding. Quoting his old friend John Maynard Smith, the late evolutionary biologist, Dawkins ponders the “scandal” of theorists’ inability to account for the emergence of sex—which, because each individual passes along only half of his or her genes, seems less efficient than asexual cloning or budding. Theories abound, but none entirely persuades. The same is true of the emergence of multicellular life and of nucleated cells.
The deepest enigma of all is, of course, the creation event that got everything rolling some 4 billion years ago. Dawkins reviews the major hypotheses, including the late Francis Crick’s not entirely facetious proposal that extraterrestrials planted the seeds of life on Earth. Then, in an about-turn, he concedes that we may never gather enough evidence to know for certain how life began. It surely must have pained this archrationalist and foe of religious fundamentalism to grant any limitation to evolution. But perhaps Dawkins has finally recognized that mysteries such as the origin of life, far from being an embarrassment to science, serve as its wellspring.
SCIENCE BEST SELLERS
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By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., HarperCollins
2. All Fishermen Are Liars: True Tales From the Dry Dock Bar
By Linda Greenlaw, Hyperion
3. The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas
By Todd Lewan, HarperCollins
4. The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
By Trevor Corson, HarperCollins
5. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality
By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf
6. Bush Versus the Environment
By Robert S. Devine, Anchor
7. Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation
By Alan Gurney, W. W. Norton
8. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers
By V. S. Ramachandran, Pi Press
9. Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster
By Ross Gelbspan, Basic Books
10. Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs
By Jerry Avorn, Alfred A. Knopf
SOURCE: BARNES & NOBLE BOOKSELLERS