Molecules: a book review

Molecules by Theodore Gray

I recently purchased Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray of (this is the sequel to his superb The Elements, which I have previously reviewed). The book is packed with interesting facts about chemistry as it relates to daily life, and the photographs are absolutely beautiful, as this two-page spread shows:

The structure of the book is necessarily a little ad-hoc, lacking the obvious pattern of The Elements. However, it is still well-organised, informative, and compelling. Everyone interested in science should probably have this one on the coffee table too.

I would give this book five stars, except that nothing could be quite as good as The Elements. I should also note that Theodore Gray’s Reactions is coming out soon. I expect that to be worthwhile as well.

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Molecules by Theodore Gray: 4 stars

A Wellcome donation

The Wellcome Library has donated to Wikimedia Commons over 100,000 images relating to medical history, rare books, Asian art, and other topics. The images are available from (progressively) or from under a Creative Commons Attribution only CC BY 4.0 licence (giving credit to ‘Wellcome Library, London’). Example images from this treasure trove include:

Blow fly (Chrysomya chloropyga) – coloured drawing by Amedeo John Engel Terzi

Hebrew manuscript

Indian game of Snakes and Ladders

17th century Japanese herbal

H is for Hawk: a book review

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

For quite some time, I have been waiting eagerly for my copy of H is for Hawk to arrive. I became aware of the author, Helen Macdonald, through her blog, so I knew in advance that the writing would be superb. Early reviews of the book reinforced this belief – “lyrical,” said The Guardian; “a soaring triumph,” said The Telegraph; “a dazzling piece of work,” said The Financial Times.

H is for Hawk is a nature book, but an intensely personal one – like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, perhaps, but much more so. Grief-stricken by her father’s death, Helen Macdonald decides to follow in the footsteps of the (rather disturbed) author T. H. White by training a goshawk. Macdonald describes the goshawk species this way:

In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier, and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision… Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.

A female goshawk, Accipiter gentilis

Raising large predatory birds is an unusual way of dealing with grief, but we all cope with loss in different ways. The author was indeed “looking for grace,” and it is at least possible that grace takes wingèd form. Macdonald first meets her goshawk, later named Mabel, emerging from a cardboard box:

The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.

Juvenile (left) and adult (right) goshawks

Training a goshawk requires intense observation of the bird’s appearance and behaviour, and Macdonald’s wonderful prose beautifully captures the results of her observation. To take just one example:

The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river.

The gaze of this goshawk “filled me with dread,” according to photographer Steve Garvie

Goshawks are not, in any sense, domesticated animals. They are very, very wild, and Macdonald finds that “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human.” She loves Mabel, but without sentimental misunderstandings (and without the unconscious cruelty of T. H. White). She understands that a predator’s role in the natural world is to kill and eat prey. At one point she describes her goshawk as “the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle.” Such a clear understanding of the fact that predators predate is essential to good wildlife management. Nature is what it is, not what we would have it be: “there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves.”

A goshawk nest with four young birds (photo: Rainer Altenkamp)

I had high expectations of this book, and I was not disappointed – it is one of the best books I have read in a long time. But what of grace? For goshawks in general, it came in the restoration of the British goshawk population. “The wild can be human work,” as Macdonald writes. T. H. White, on the other hand, never recovered from the pain of his dysfunctional childhood. Mabel the goshawk grew to adulthood and flew for many years. And Macdonald herself? I’ll leave the reader to decide whether wild predatory birds can indeed bring healing from pain and grief. However, I was reminded of a certain young wizard who, “in fierce distress,” transforms into a great hawk in order to return to the land of his birth. “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.

Naturally, this brief review can scarcely do justice to a book as complex as H is for Hawk. But anyone interested in birds, in people, in grief, in England, in T. H. White, or in brilliant, lyrical writing that swoops and soars like the goshawk herself – anyone interested in such things should read this book. I’m giving it a very rare 5 stars.

For lengthy excerpts from the book, along with photographs of Mabel, see here and here. Macdonald has also written Falcon, although that is a very different kind of book.

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: 5 stars

A Street Through Time: a book review for Children’s Book Week

A Street Through Time, illlustrated by Steve Noon

In honour of Children’s Book Week, here is a look at a classic children’s book – A Street Through Time, from Dorling Kindersley. The strength of this book lies in the wonderful two-page spreads by Steve Noon. For example, this night-time plague scene:

Relationships between corresponding places at different times are particularly interesting in this book. For example, the high ground occupied by a Roman fort later holds a castle, which is then destroyed:

Several other structures also go through transformations over the centuries, as do the people, and it is these transformations that provide the young reader with a sense of change over time.

Although the genre here is history/archaeology, there are many great ideas here for children’s science books – an area in which Dorling Kindersley also has several excellent offerings.

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A Street Through Time, illlustrated by Steve Noon: 5 stars

The Birds of America

The Birds of America, by French-American painter and naturalist John James Audubon, is one of the classic works of ornithology and of nature-art in general. It earned Audubon the position of Fellow of the Royal Society (as well as many other honours), while the Audubon Society has kept his name alive.

The Birds of America consists of 435 hand-coloured prints, published between 1827 and 1838. Sets of high-resolution images can be found at the University of Pittsburgh and on Wikimedia Commons. The accompanying five-volume Ornithological Biography (written with William MacGillivray) can also be found at the University of Pittsburgh (with Volume 1 only at and at WikiSource). About the Goosander (below), Audubon writes, for example, “This species may be said to be a constant resident with us, as many individuals breed in the interior of the states of New York, Massachusetts, and Maine. When I first resided in Kentucky, some bred there also, although at the present day none pass the summer in that country…

Even in an age of photography, the timeless quality of Audubon’s work stands out. In some cases, the birds that Audubon captured so brilliantly are no longer with us – the Great Auk, for example, is now extinct, and Audubon’s illustration is as close to the bird as we can now come:

Under the Sea-Wind: a book review

Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson (1941)

I recently re-read the classic 1941 book Under the Sea-Wind by the marine biologist and well-known conservationist Rachel Carson.

This superb book is written in a wonderfully lyrical – almost poetic – style, as in this passage introducing the bird Rynchops niger:

With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.

As he neared the shore of the island the skimmer drifted closer to the water, bringing his dark form into strong silhouette against the gray sheet, like the shadow of a great bird that passed unseen above. Yet so quietly did he approach that the sound of his wings, if sound there were, was lost in the whisper song of the water turning over the shells on the wet sand.

Under the Sea-Wind has been described as one of the “definitive works of American nature writing.” Carson’s own goal for the book was “to make the sea and its life as vivid a reality for those who may read the book as it has become for me during the past decade,” and she succeeded admirably. Everyone who is interested in creatures of the air or sea should read this little gem.

The book is also beautifully illustrated – in two ways. My Penguin version has the drawings by Bob Hines from the 1991 edition (such as the great blue heron above), but the more recent Penguins return to the original pen-and-ink illustrations by Howard Frech.

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Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson: 5 stars

WSC 2013: Final Reflections

Now that the World Solar Challenge is over for another two years, it’s time to reflect on the results, before I get back to my regular blogging.

The Bridgestone World Solar Challenge team has once again organised an excellent race, which covered an entire continent (although there were some unfortunate hiccups with the timing board and with the Silverlight-based live streaming of the awards).
The Nuon Solar Team deserves to be congratulated, for having the fastest car in the Challenger Class (followed by Tokai University and Solar Team Twente). Effective strategy (including planning for the weather) was also critical to reaching the finish line first. My race chart shows how close the battle for first place was.
Solar Team Eindhoven, winner of the Cruiser Class (see my updated post about the results), has shown that practical solar cars (carrying multiple people) are not all that far away from commercialisation. All kind of interesting applications can be imagined for vehicles like “Stella” – or indeed vehicles like the equally interesting Sunswift eVe or PowerCore SunCruiser.
The Netherlands has demonstrated strong expertise in solar car technology, with centres of excellence at Delft University of Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology, and the University of Twente. The Netherlands took out the Challenger #1, Challenger #3, and Cruiser #1 positions in the race. Other European teams took out Challenger #5, Challenger #6, and Cruiser #2 – it was a European-dominated event.
Jeroen Haringman at has done a superb job of analysing the race as it was happening, integrating information from both the official race site and from individual team blogs. When an event spans an entire continent, it’s difficult to get an overall perspective on what’s happening, unless someone does this kind of analysis. The organisers provided some of the raw data (GPS position and timing), but various photos, videos, and comments by participants were scattered around cyberspace, and required collating. One commenter called Jeroen Haringman’s site “the only comprehensible record.”
The individual media teams did a great job in communicating the excitement around the world via YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and blogs. The media teams of Twente (Dutch video) and Nuon (Dutch video with captions) did particularly well. With enough technology, it becomes almost like being there.
GPS feeds into Google maps were an effective way of covering the race, although varying forms of analysis that were being built on-the-fly during the race need to be developed further. A short-lived experiment with Google Docs was particularly interesting, though limited in several ways.
A “brave attempt” award goes to the two high-school entries, from Goko High School in Japan (their nice-looking Cruiser Class entry lost its rear wheels just outside of Alice Springs), and Choctaw Central High School in Mississippi (their sleek Adventure Class entry developed electrical problems between Katherine and Dunmarra). For a high school to even compete at this level is indeed a major achievement!
The sun has really been the star of the race. It provided the energy that powered the vehicles. But the pictures of the Tokai vehicle stalled in the rain on the morning of the fifth day are a reminder that the sun is not always available. The first three days of the race took place in a part of the world with an average insolation of around 250 W/m2. In cloudier regions and at higher latitudes, average insolation drops to less than half of that, as well as being less consistent. That means that energy storage will always remain a critical part of any solar technology. It also means that solar technology is perhaps better suited to some parts of the world than others.

Finally, let me finish my WSC race coverage with this parting photo (by Jorrit Lousberg) of Team Nuon in the outback. It’s been an exciting week!

Brehms Tierleben

Brehms Tierleben (Brehm’s Life of Animals) is a multi-volume zoological work by Alfred Brehm and others, published in various editions from 1863.

German digital editions of this work exist, and some images can be found on Wikimedia Commons. An 1895 English edition can be found on

The many pictures of animals in their natural habitat make this a zoological milestone, and it has been called “one of the most renowned works of zoology.” It’s well worth a look!

National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

The National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (photo by David Bjorgen)

I have already written about the National Air and Space Museum’s surprisingly good country cousin in Kansas. The larger museum on the National Mall in Washington is an absolute must-see (and try to visit the annex at Dulles International Airport as well).

National Air and Space Museum entrance hall, with the Apollo 11 command module on the left (photo by Jawed Karim)

There is lots to see in the Washington museum – the Apollo 11 command module and the Wright brothers’ aircraft, for example – and lots to do. And the museum is free, although the IMAX theatre, planetarium, and flight simulators are not. For young children, there are story times. See also the floor plans and a list of aircraft on display at this superb museum.

An interactive exhibit (photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm)

If you can’t visit, there are online exhibits, a multimedia gallery, a blog, and images and video from the public observatory.

Aircraft on display – including, on the right, the opportunity to enter a 747 cockpit (my photo)

Note: the museum is currently closed due to the US federal government shutdown.