Saturday, February 14, 2009

Science Novels and Novel Science

Most of the time I like knowing something about a book when I begin to read it. Not the ending or even necessarily "what it's about", but the kind of information I can usually glean from the cover, from the tastes of the recommender or from knowing something about an author. Still, it was an unusual pleasure to read The Strange One by Fred Bodsworth without having any idea of what it was or where it was going. The cover offered few clues: the book handed to me is in its 1959 library binding. It looks like a dated library book, possibly young adult, with no words except the title, the author and "Withdrawn from San Bernadino County Library". My mother physically gave it to me, telling me my aunt had wanted me to read it because it was "about a botanist, or maybe not really a botanist" and that my aunt had cried the whole plane ride back from France as she finished it. The aunt in question has good taste in books, but usually recommends contemporary fiction (The Kite Runner or The Time Traveller's Wife) to anyone who reads. To my knowledge, she's never before singled me out for a specific book, nor has she ever been within a thousand miles of San Bernadino County.
The "all characters are fictional" disclaimer didn't shed any light on where the book was going, except that Bodsworth has a sense of humor, "It [the story] is a work of fiction and all of its characters are fictional people-- except the goose, which is a fictional goose." The story promptly starts with the story of a Barnacle goose in the waters off the Hebrides, switches to a cocky grad student in Toronto and joins them together in a clever play on names. I won't reveal much more, except that it is not about a botanist: ornithologists are altogether different people, and that I did weep profusely enough about a goose that I've sworn off reading other sad books for a while. One hopes that the sad parts not about the goose are sorely outdated, and that race and class relations have altered fundamentally in fifty years, but I'm not sure I would have been crying if bigotry were all a thing of the past. Highly recommended for both mothers, and my many biologist friends who enjoy a touching story, even if many of the characters are abrasive.

I picked up Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season the day after reading The Strange One and read it in a day as well. Doig's novel of childhood dryland farming in Montana in 1909 sparked comparisons to O Pioneers!, Louis Erdrich's Master Butchers' Singing Club and Ralph Moody's Little Britches stories, all of which are great in their own way, and which The Whistling Season can stand proudly among. I couldn't help but compare The Whistling Season to Buster Midnight, both being about Montana and boxing in the early 1900s, and for characters that feel authentic (even when they learn Latin in a one room school), Doig beats Sandra Dallas by a long way. My mother recommended The Whistling Season in part because it promotes one room and local schools as part of comprehensive education. I totally agree that great teachers can make a great difference and that students' education should integrate science and arts into spelling lessons. I can't help but think, however, that Doig's character and my mother romanticize the possibilities of education in a small town. My fathers will quickly tell you that small schools in small towns more often mean being stuck with mediocre educators for years rather than learning from a brilliant integrated curriculum as Doig's character did. Strangely, the one thing that made me cry reading this was the descriptions of Halley's Comet, which I managed not to see in 1986, despite many attempts. Hale-Bopp, fortunately, was magical in the evening sky in Philadelpia.

In The Creation E.O. Wilson, "proposes an* historic partnership between scientists and religious leaders to preserve Earth's rapidly vanishing biodiversity" according to the back cover. Frankly, if Wilson intended to be persuade about the power of combined forces, he fails. Despite written claims to the contrary, however, I doubt this was the main purpose of the book. The final unit "Reaching Across" (subheaded "Science and religion are the two most powerful forces of society. Together they can save the creation.") fills only 3 and half pages of this slim volume, and most of those pages are spent refuting Intelligent Design as a scientific theory, hardly a compelling argument for a joining of societal superpowers. What Wilson does do well, however, is explain just how important biodiversity is biologically and as most of the book is devoted to this (in a guise of a letter to a Baptist preacher), I assume this was his primary intent. His suggestions for raising a naturalist are great and his ideas about teaching biology carefully considered. I was amused (bemused?) that, following the calculation that protecting the top 25 hotspots of biodiversity (protecting about 70% of land dwelling plants and animals) would cost the world $30 billion, Wilson went out of his way to explain how this vast sum of money could be found. The book, written in 2006, was obviously before modern congressional bailouts and only made me wonder why we didn't throw in another $30 billion to protect global biodiversity if that's all it's going to take. Should you be wanting to read why biodiversity is important and how the science needs to progress in order to preserve it, I recommend The Creation. While the book is respectful of religion, if you are looking for creative solutions to combine science with religion, look elsewhere.

*how silent to 'h's need to be to be preceded by "an"? "An hour" "an herbaceous plant" definitely, but "a heroine overdose" and "a histogram". In my pronunciation, historic and hysterical would fall on the "a" side, but I know of no official ruling (my English ex-boyfriend does not count).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Beans! The Legume Resolution

I'm excited to announce that I am resolved to explore the world of legumes* in 2009.

How, you may wonder, does one explore legumes?

Well, for one thing, I will eat more of them. I'll be eating favorites including black bean breakfast burritos and spicy red lentils, but also trying new beans eaten in new ways (to me). I've never cooked fresh fava beans, never tried sweet beans in my bubble tea, never experimented trying to make my own daal or falafel and I haven't a clue which soy milks taste bad. I've purchased adzuki beans several times in my life and never once figured out what to do with them. That will change this year.

As a botanical family, beans are interesting beyond the edible parts. I hope to do some legume gardening and some legume tourism as well. Possibilities would include the prairie in bloom with baptisia, gardens of the South overflowing with wisteria, the Texas hill country when the blue bonnets are out, the desert with mesquite or a safari among acacia trees. None of these trips are planned, by the way, but as one of the largest plant families, I'm sure to find legumes to observe in Italy and here in my own garden, two trips I am planning on making.

Beans have made their way into literature. I'll be rereading The Milagro Beanfield War and The Bean Trees, and looking into Jack and the Beanstalk and other magic beans. Happy Cricket recently informed me that Thoreau was interested in beans, so it appears I'll be looking into Walden for the first time. Other suggestions are most welcome.

Finally, I'll be writing about beans as well for other forums. Prairie turnips, Pediomelum esculentum, my favorite dissertation study organism, are legumes (not turnips) and its high time the world learned of them through some peer-reviewed articles in ecological journals.

So, legumes, here I come. They, are, as the rhyme goes, good for your heart.

*The legumes, correctly the Fabaceae are a plant family typically known as the "peas and beans". The family includes beans (green, black, red, navy, white, cranberry, pinto, kidney, soy, wax, string, runner, long, broad, fava, anasazi, adzuki and garbonzo), peas (green, sugar, split, chick, and poisonous sweet), peanuts, lupines, prairie turnips, indigo, mimosa, mesquite, red buds, golden banner, wisteria, locust (honey, black and new mexico), laburnum, vetch, clover, alfalfa, gorse, broom, and locoweed, among many others.