Going With the Grain
The pollen grain is the essential sexual tool of any flower, the protective carrying case for its sperm. This airtight package comes in thousands of varieties, many quite fantastic looking; some are dotted with menacing spikes, others are elongated and wrapped in a sheath that resembles a honeycomb. When dehydrated, a pollen grain looks like a deflated kickball. These mere specks, many only 50 microns across, are gargantuan on the ultravivid pages of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers (Firefly Books, $60), written by Madeline Harley, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and photographed with an electron microscope by Rob Kesseler.
The grains, by necessity rugged vehicles, are ingeniously engineered. Unlike animals, which release sperm into a moist environment, plants like angiosperms, conifers, and their relatives need to get sperm cells to a recipient plant—sometimes miles away—before they dry up. The hard covering, or exine, of each grain has to be tough enough to protect its cargo from even the sun's radiation. Yet when pollen reaches its destination, that same outer shell must be yielding enough to transfer moisture to the grain's soft innards, which expand and burst, facilitating fertilization.
Contrary to popular belief, not all of the particles we associate with hay fever are bright yellow and dusty; they can range from colorless to red or purple and vary in texture from dry to sticky, depending on whether wind or an obliging insect is to carry them. And like bugs in photomicrographs, pollen on a blown-up scale can appear otherworldly. At 1,500 times magnification, the expanded Tulipa violacea grain is reminiscent of a distended planet Mars, covered in hills, valleys, and bulges. —Anne Wootton
From sorrow can spring forth sweet inspiration. In 1927, the inventor Buckminster Fuller contemplated suicide after his daughter's death from pneumonia during a bitter Chicago winter. As consolation he decided to harness nature to improve the lot of humankind. His first venture was the Dymaxion House (left), an energy-efficient home whose name combines the words dynamic, maximum, and tension. Assembled from a kit, Dymaxion House resembled a tree, with a central mast serving as a vertical strut from which a web of cables supported an exterior shell of casein panels.
An image of the house, along with a film of Fuller's 1933 Dymaxion Car—a whalelike jet-propelled vehicle that could travel in any direction, in air or on land—appears in Best of Friends, a beautifully integrated exhibition that examines the friendship between Fuller and the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On view at the Noguchi Museum (www.noguchi.org) in New York through October 15, the exhibit uses sculpture, drawings, and photographs to explore the ways in which the two friends influenced each other. For example, Noguchi adapted into his own sculptures Fuller's "tensegrity" system, a term the inventor coined to denote structural integrity created by tension. Sadly, only one Dymaxion House was ever built. When Fuller offered the prototype to the American Institute of Architects, they rejected it, saying that they opposed "any kind of house designs that are manufactured like peas-in-a-pod." —Josie Glausiusz
Lord, is that you in my DNA?
As battles rage between science and religion, some voices peep through the clamor, not choosing sides but instead citing reasons for reconciliation. In his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, $26), Francis S. Collins is one such voice. A scientist with impressive credentials, he directed the Human Genome Project, mining the primary record of evolution to map the vast vocabulary of life's indwelling DNA "grammar," which he calls the language of God. Collins is unafraid of the G-word because, besides being an eminent scientist, he is also a Christian. To him, science and religion are not only complementary but are both essential for a complete understanding of the world, a philosophy he systematically lays out in this book.
Homeschooled by a family of freethinkers on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Collins was attracted to the certainty of the hard sciences. Religion seemed quaint and unrealistic, and as a young man he became an atheist. But his worldview shifted when he was a physician in training, moved by the bravery of his gravely ill patients. When one of them asked him, in a religious context, what he believed, the conscientious scientist realized that he could only answer this question definitively with research (via books) and careful consideration. His analytic mentality, far from deepening his atheism, ultimately drove him to faith. Some of Collins's religious reasoning will be familiar to readers of C. S. Lewis, another skeptic turned believer. Collins freely acknowledges this debt, tracing his own spiritual Big Bang moment to reading Lewis's Mere Christianity.
Collins easily dismantles the shrillest arguments of the creationists, stressing that religion is too important to be based on fuzzy thinking. Of the literalist belief that the world was created in 4004 B.C., he writes, "Its persistence is one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time." But just as systematically he rejects scientific materialism, the notion that life is a random, soulless interaction of matter and energy. "In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God," he writes. "Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates." Collins offers the reader a broad concept he calls BioLogos—the cross-pollination of Bios (life) and Logos, the Word of God. (Perhaps he feels the need to name this philosophy so that it can compete with the well-marketed creationist concept dubbed intelligent design.)
The Language of God delivers a steady flow of intelligent, humane writing. But as much as it is a learned addition to the debate, this book is hardly brimming with epiphanies. Its central premise of the compatibility of God and science has been expressed elsewhere, both recently and less recently. As Thomas Aquinas wrote 725 years ago, "For faith is not opposed to sensus [reason] but is of that which sensus cannot reach." —Dean Christopher
SCIENCE BEST SELLERS
Source: Barnes & Noble
1. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It
Al Gore (Rodale)
2. THE GOOD GOOD PIG: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood Sy Montgomery (Ballantine Books)
3. THE LAST SEASON Eric Blehm (HarperCollins)
4. ANOTHER DAY IN THE FRONTAL LOBE: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside Katrina Firlik (Random House)
5. DECODING THE UNIVERSE: How the New Science of Information Is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, From Our Brains to Black Holes Charles Seife (Viking)
6. INTELLIGENT THOUGHT: Science Versus the Intelligent Design Movement John Brockman (Vintage Books)
7. THE WEATHER MAKERS: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press)
8. BEFORE THE DAWN: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors Nicholas Wade (Penguin Press)
9. UNKNOWN QUANTITY: A Real and Imagined History of Algebra John Derbyshire (Joseph Henry Press)
10. KICKED, BITTEN, AND SCRATCHED: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers Amy Sutherland (Viking)