TIDWELL’S RECOMMENDED NATURAL HISTORY BOOKS:
EXPLORING THE NATURE OF THINGS
Nature is tricky. I made this list because I found that even after taking steps to select the most promising natural history and science titles I was often disappointed. You would get a book on such and such and try to read it and the author would botch it up, not explain it in the right way. So in my opinion, most of the books which claim to be about the nature take off on cultural tangents and end up in chaos. None of those books are listed here. Others may have had an interesting subject but failed to convince me that the author had faithfully described nature. None of those books are listed here either. Listed below are the bare few that I have found to recommend to you. If perchance you have something that you think I should check out by all means please let me know as I am keenly interested in finding others to review. This will be updated periodically as I find additional stuff to recommend. Thanks Mike Tidwell. firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard P. Feynman summed it up best: “There are all kinds of myths and pseudoscience all over the place. I may be quite wrong, maybe they do know all these things, but I don’t think I’m wrong. You see, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something, and therefore I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it, they haven’t done the work necessary, haven’t done the checks necessary, haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know, that this stuff is (wrong) and they’re intimidating people. I think so. I don’t know the world very well but that’s what I think……”
……… If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we’re just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is, but whatever way it comes out its nature is there and she’s going to come out the way she is, and therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn’t predefine what it is we’re trying to do except to try to find out more about it……………if you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we’re going, what the meaning of the universe is and so on, then I think you could easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to understand….”
The following are recommended from hundreds of titles:
1. The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold: Settle into your concert chair as Mr. Gold puts on a daunting performance as a genius of physical nature. This is a stunning book. Gold works materials science, chemistry, physics, and Earth systems like a master craftsman. His thinking is a beauty to behold. The conclusions of this master piece shatter a number myths about evolution, carbon flow, mineral deposition, and petroleum reserves. These subjects I know seem quite unrelated but I can assure you that they are indeed intimately related.
2. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf Birds by Bernd Hienrich. Hienrich is relentlessly clever in teasing out the secretive world of one of the worlds most clever animals- the North American Raven. With energy, hard work and integrity Hienrich pours himself into the subject at hand and it’s quite a ride.
3. One River : Explorations and Discovery in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis. This is an amazing, lyrical book. It weaves four or five stories expertly together. The main figure is an ethanobotanist Richard Schultz, who explored the extraordinary plants and Indians of the Amazon during the 1950s. Richard Schultz is one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the pleasure to know about.
4. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biography in an Age of Extinction by David Quaman. The extinction of famous animals like the dodo and Tasmanian wolf, among others is chronicled in gripping and bittersweet detail. It gives one a feeling for the process of extinction which is applicable to, for example, recent attempts to stabilize pacific coast fisheries. It is also a good introduction to some of the curious mechanics of speciation and the early work of Edward O. Wilson.
5. Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape by Barry Lopez. Deft. Vivid. Powerful. Barry paints a picture of the landscape of the far north and not just of the animals but the ice and light of a great wilderness.
6. Caught Inside: A Surfers Year on the California Coast by Daniel Duane. This is a rich story, of course, about surfing, but also of waves and land and wilderness, and the story of land here close to home, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, when it was a wilderness. Only a few short years ago the land was unrecognizably different and he does a beautiful job of calling its former glory.
7. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber. I picked this book up on a whim on the way to Yellowstone during a family field trip. It started a bit slow but it really wholloped me in the end and so remains one of the most fascinating books I have read to date. It is interesting on many different levels. Ishi eventually came to live at UC Berkley in the natural history museum and became relatively famous in the San Francisco Bay Area influencing many. Over all an incredible story.
8. Song for the Blue Ocean : Encounters Along the Worlds Coasts and Beneath the Seas by Carl Safina. This book is a match between a great lyrical writer and a rich subject matter. It is divided into three sections. The first detailing Atlantic coast fisheries with vivid descriptions of one of the largest and most magnificent of animals- the Blue Fin Tuna. Part two we explore the Pacific coast fisheries and join one of deepest of pelagic fish- the Salmon. Part three concerns the tropical Pacific reef systems. This book is a masterpiece.
9. Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States by Stein, Kutnar, Adams. Where is the diversity in our country? In what areas of worldwide diversity do we excel? For example we lead the world in Cray fish diversity with 61% of all species. It’s full of surprises and fascinating insights—taking inventory and outlining relationships across America .
10. The Sagebrush Ocean : A Natural History of the Great Basin by Stephen Trimble. It looks like one of those pathetic coffee table books but don’t be fooled. The pictures are fabulous and the text is even more interesting. The power of the landscape is evoked and you are gripped by the wonder of it. It’s also a remarkable story of change and climate and of just how new the American deserts really are despite looking like they been there forever.
11. Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. This book is the story of water in the western United States during the past one hundred years. This is an incredibly well researched, well written, and thought provoking book. Arid lands, water, dams, salt, culture, government, and human nature swirl and scrap. I must have come across it at just the right time as it was for me a bellwether book on many levels. When it comes to water the truth is far stranger than fiction.
12. The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. Although this book is written in only 1994 it suffers from subsequent advances in reading and understanding the genetic makeup of the microbes. It is still a fascinating work however. It reads like a detective novel racing across the globe to explore human disease both new and old. The world of the microbe is absolutely fascinating in their virulence, abundance, dominance of the world and their ability to change and adapt. It is something to think about for a mammal with such a ridiculously high population levels such as ourselves.
13. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman. Feynman was an exceptional physicist during the 20th century. Feynman is as they say no ordinary genius. In particular he possessed a feel for nature and a phenomenal ability to describe it, even in its most complicated faces. It’s a short book and pretty funny. Still the tales were so fantastic that I did not know if I dared to believe it. I next spent sometime reading everything that I could find about this person. It turns out this book only gives a mere tip of the iceberg about this amazing character. When Feynman speaks it is wise to listen very carefully. He along with Thomas Gold, (of book# 1 above), are the heavy hitters in the nature business.
14. Thread of Life: The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution by Roger Levin. An experience altering look of the broad patterns of life through the eons. We have so little experience on this planet compared to other life forms that it pays poke around in the immense time before us. This book is a great way to open that door.
15. Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jarod Diamond. Winner of the Pulitzer prize. So much of human history is written for and read by people who love human culture to the exclusion of all else that the broad patterns of our nature are lost. This is an exciting tale of why one culture is able to secure more resources than another. Turns out the winner isn’t personally superior at all. Mr. Diamond in a beautifully written work offers clear insights into our history in 400 pages and nimbly assigns the proper weight to the proper factors.
16. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. Deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize. A riveting and masterful job with a complicated subject. Terrific insights are gained when a team of biologists intensely measure Darwins Finches over several decades. Part awe at the gritty determination of the finches to persist in an unforgiving landscape and part unbelievable portrait of evolution at work not over the millenniums, as is commonly assumed, but seemingly from moment to moment.
17. The Birds of Northern Melanesia : Speciation, Ecology, and Biogeography by Ernst Mayr & Jared Diamond. A master work. The style of this book is closer to being a text book. These guys take an excellent stab at a slippery subject—speciation. In the island group studied they take a very detailed snap shot of the birds found there and draw some interesting conclusions about which birds are most likely to form new species and why.
18. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard P. Feynman. You have to be in awe of Feynman. With a few arrows and squiggly lines and 152 pages he lays out the whole deal on the nature of things in the very small. Quantum electrodynamics is the crown jewel of physics and is successful at explaining electricity, chemistry, magnetism, light, matter…the whole of the universe except gravity. The nature is described brilliantly with a legendary clarity that is the hallmark of this most remarkable of people.
19. American Bison: A Natural History by Dale F. Lott. The American Bison one of the largest remaining herbivores in North America and keystone species of the Great Plains ecosystem suffered massive declines in the late 19th century and now exists in only remnant populations. Mr. Lott proves to be a first class observer which allows him to reconstruct the nature of this vanished place. His descriptions and love of this tremendous grassland sparkle.
20. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks. This is a compilation of neurological case histories which illustrate the strange nature of the human mind. Minds are show cased with defects, excesses, aberrations, and disorders with all their strange consequences. The super abilities of some patients are astonishing. Others with defects have their own amazing stories to tell. Oliver Sacks is a most interesting person in his own right and he offers other works as well which shouldn’t be missed.
21. California Grizzly by Tracy I. Storer and Lloyd P. Trevis, Jr. Not well written but nonetheless very interesting. Grizzly’s, Mountain Lions, Spaniards, Indians, Grizzly Adams, ring fighting; it seems more like a fantasy but just a few years ago it was going on right in my backyard. The heart of California Grizzly territory was Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties .
22. A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert M. Sapolsky. Humorous and very fun to read. You get to look over the shoulder of a good researcher and hear him think out loud and as well, the author’s encounters with the landscape and the people themselves that is uniquely Africa .
23. An Introduction to Tropical Rain Forests by T.C. Whitmore. One way to know something of the great tropical forests is make detailed comparisons between Indo-Malayan, Amazonian, and Central African forests looking at their climate histories, flowering cycles, genetic diversity, mammals, pollinators, soil types, rain fall patterns, nutrient cycles, and forest dynamics. This is a fascinating read.
24. The Life of an Oak: An Intimate Portrait by Glenn Keator. If you live around oaks this is the book for you. The drawings and photos are some of the best. Oaks are related to chestnuts and they are in their own right a fascinating group. In my habitat here they are a corner stone species and so the Oaks have interesting relationships with mammals, birds, fungus, and insects. This book is a handcrafted gem.
25. The Ants by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. The ants are a dominate player, especially in Tropical Ecosystems. This book contains jewels like this one- “We have noticed a worldwide tendency in the relation between behavior and species diversity, as follows: the fewer the ant species in a local community, the more likely the community is to be dominated behaviorally by one or a few species with large, aggressive colonies that maintain absolute territories.” Ok so it’s not for everyone but still it’s an awesome volume.
26. Genome by Matt Ridley. Editor’s Choice, New York Times Book Review. Just recently it is finally possible to take a peek at the 4 billion year old DNA found on our 23 pairs of chromosomes. This book is much like book# 16—The Beak of the Finch—in that the author also takes a very complicated subject and does an admirable job of describing its nature. The book is structured into 23 chapters, one chapter covering a fascinating aspect of each pair of human chromosomes. The subjects of each chapter are amazingly diverse, linking our origins to the Round Flat Worm, accounting for male homosexuality, linking heart attacks with Alzheimer’s disease, and inherited traits like intelligence, behavior, or language. It is shocking to also learn how battle scared our software is-only 3% of it contains useful genes for example. Jump into this revolution in the making.
27. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstien’s Brian by Michael Paterniti. Humorous and nimble. And if you were thinking from the title that this work is fictional one you would be wrong. Einstien’s brain was removed at autopsy and remained in the controversial possession of the surgeon who performed the autopsy for 40 years. Not sure how this contributes to our adventure here with nature but we have to have a break or two along the way. Strange but true story.
28. Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul. One of the greatest shows on the planet is the migration of the birds. This book moves you beyond the migrations of the familiar ducks and geese which in their own right are remarkable, to even more unbelievable athletic feats found in the lives of the sandpipers, warblers, swallows, hawks and the curlews. This book brings together current research and the wonder of the nature of the birds themselves.
29. The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change by Paul Andrew Mayewski & Frank White. Right up front I can say that this book has a bland writing style and so nothing exciting here. But I can’t let this keep it from being recommended, for in my view, the drama of the climate system it describes for our planet over the preceding 100,000 years as detailed in the Greenland ice cores and a whopping 400,000 years for the Antarctica ice cores shouldn’t be missed. It paints a sobering picture, among other things, that dramatic climate change can be on the scale of a single decade not millenniums as is often assumed. The historical patterns outlined in this book describe the nature of our planet’s climate fluctuations which are amazing in their extremes. It is also not easy to understand what the important drivers of the system are. Key influences are presented that are little known. In the current warming trend we are experiencing this book assumes additional relevance.
30. Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival by Carl Safina. I still can’t get over the story of these birds. Recently Albatrosses have been outfitted with satellite tracking systems so for the first time it is known the extent of their flights. Nobody was prepared for the results. The current flight record holder is traveling a scorching 7000 miles in only 8 days. Check in with the master fliers of the planet.
31. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley. This book captures the heart and soul of a lengthy and still inconclusive debate about why have some organisms bothered to have sex in order to reproduce while many others have not. As revealed in this book the easy answers do not hold under close scrutiny and the more likely answers are very thought provoking.
One note here. Among the authors here there are roughly two categories. One group is the excellent writer or story teller with a lot of integrity who works very hard and pulls off a great description of a complicated piece of nature which is great and all that. But it still pays to remember that these fellows are while intimate and skillful with their subject are often on the outside looking in. They present well reasoned and creative descriptions of nature but there is an inherent distance and you still cannot honestly say that they have nailed the nature of the subject matter. It’s like Matt Ridley says. Let’s suppose that every morning that you get up the driveway is wet. Well there are of course many clever theories that could be sold to explain the driveway being wet…..sprinklers, fog, rain, thermal inversions, neighbors, gardeners or even combinations of factors. All are plausible and appealing but you are still guessing about the real answer-what the very water molecules themselves are actually doing. The second category is the rare fellow that will take you behind the scenes to capture the flow of the atoms themselves. Here in my list this is only Thomas Gold, Richard P. Feynman, Isaac Newton, or at times Erwin Schrödinger who are on another level and are therefore deserving of the most trust.
32. Tears of the Cheetah and Other Tales from the Genetic Frontier by Stephen O’Brien. This book is irritating to read. I am forced to include it here because of the excellent nature it reveals by looking on the inside—the genes themselves. Amazing stories of pumas and cheetahs and whales and panda bears are told here, known to us only through the process of looking very carefully at their genes.
33. Time, Love, Memory by Jonathan Weiner. Wow Mr. Weiner can deal. He is a very good writer. The story here outlines one of the best scientific tales of the twentieth century. The science is looking at the genes and trying to figure out how they express themselves in an organism. These are not merely physical characteristics but behavioral ones. It is also part autobiographical of the famous geneticist Seymour Benzer. Dr. Benzer is a very interesting dude who used to have even Richard P. Feynman stop by the old fly room!
34. Atmosphere, Climate, and Change by Thomas E. Graedel and Paul J. Crutzen. This is nothing special about the writing style but it more than makes up for it by laying down some basics about our planetary and climate history. The book is measured and careful in the descriptions of the nature. What are the green house gases and where do they come from? How much CO2 is currently in the atmosphere now and how is this contrasted with past climates? Ozone, smog, glaciations, atmospheric chemistry, sea level changes, solar fluxes, pollen studies, ultraviolet radiation are reviewed with an eye toward predicting the next 100 years of climate. I can not stress enough how important it is to take notice of the serious changes in the climate.
35. What is Life? With mind and matter by Erwin Schrodinger. Schrodinger or as I like to refer to the master as Big Eddie, is, of course, the heavy hitter physicist of Quantum Mechanics. So this book is a physicist’s look at biology and in particular how life and chromosomes are organized from first principles. Mind you this is in 1945 before we knew anything about the DNA double helix molecule. Fascinating take from a fresh perspective by a razor sharp mind. In the second half of the book Schrodinger like so many other bright people just has to try his hand at philosophy and of course everything turns to chaos as soon as you do that. I couldn’t make it to the end.
Some people were extraordinary about seeing nature. It’s interesting to look at these characters. Here are two books about two very different geniuses of this nature business.
36. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick. This is the story of a nearly unbelievable and inspirational character and great physicist of the 20th century. I have poured over this book and I admit my bias for he is without exception my favorite. For entertainment, simple truth and curiosity there’s nothing like this dude.
37. Isaac Newton by James Gleick- I worked all his stuff in physics but hadn’t a clue about who Newton was and what his creative efforts were. There were a lot of surprises not only from the extreme detail and wide extent of his work but also his strange childhood and reclusive personality. Fascinating how he changed everything working alone and with the barest of tools.
38. Lichens of North America by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, & Stephen Sharnoff. Superb natural history book. A huge book of 769 pages with 939 photos. The Lichens are a fungus growth imbedded with another organism that can capture sunlight like an algae or cyanobacteria, for example. These guys with their bright colors and near ubiquitous distribution are way too fun and interesting to pass up.
39. The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman. He’s loose again! Richard gives a series of lectures to Cornell talking about nature and man’s attempts to describe it. I can never say enough about how he can so clearly describe a complicated subject. Here he gives a remarkable view of the world letting us peek behind the curtain like he is lining up a series of golf shots and you will come away stunned at the depth of his talent and insight into the nature of things.
40. Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health by Willaim Sargent. Not a bad little book. The horseshoe crab has been around for 300 million years. It turns out that its copper based blue blood provides a reliable test for gram negative bacteria and so it has become a highly prized commodity. This book illustrates how badly we can manage our resource base. We should really be showing this great organism more respect.
41. A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola by John Frederick Walker. This book again makes clear that we are the strangest animal on the planet. A rare and inaccessible large antelope, the brutal Angola civil war, trophy hunting culture, with conversationalists trying to hold it together are all laid out by this deft and well written book. With our ability to move everything around by burning hydrocarbons we can turn everything upside down and this makes for an interesting story of nature in Angola .
42. One Man’s Owl by Bernd Heinrich. Maybe I should just put all of Heinrichs books in here. Bernd finds a baby Great horned Owl and this book tells the story of his three year relationship with this creature. It was pretty interesting. This species lives around my house and even though I am somewhat familiar with its habits and reputation there was a lot to be surprised about.
43. Bumble Bee Economics by Bernd Heinrich. Out of print. I had to pay through the nose for a copy of this great book. You have to marvel at the intricate and detailed decisions the bees and making and documented in this volume. They have no brain to speak of and yet the programming imbedded into their nervous system allows sophisticated behaviors. This book changed how I look at the nature of flowers and the insect world.
44. Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists by Nicholas P. Money. Engaging, funny, interesting. This is great way to crack into the confusing and murky world of the fungi. Fungi are a big deal. They are an old, old group some of which intertwine themselves with the plants in bizarre ways, with others that act like animals, still others shoot cannons and exploding blobs, or drill into granite, reproduce in unbelievably convoluted pathways and in general act they own the place as well they might.
45. Hummingbirds Their Life and Behavior: A Photographic Study of the North American Species by Esther Quesada Tyrrell. One of the engineering marvels of the world is the hummingbird with such a high metabolism packed into a such a small package weighting about a dime it is interesting to explore the distribution, physiology, and speciation of this very remarkable family. When you sit and think about a bit the hummingbird has to be right on the edge of what its possible to make.
46. Where the Sea Breaks Its Back by Corey Ford. This is the story of a famous naturalist Georg Steller. This is the guy of Stellers Sea Cow, Stellers Jay, Stellers Sea Monkey and Stellers Sea Lion. Steller was the first person trained in the western world to visit Alaska and the Aleutians on a Russian expedition launched from Siberia . It was a very surprising tale for me to read. I had always heard of Steller but had never investigated what he was about. A brilliant mind struggling to get anything done in the face of stunning adversity. He died believing he was a total failure, drunk in a dog sled in the bitter cold at the age of 37.
47. Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life by Leonard Mlodinow. Slightly cultural but it is still a good book for getting started on string theory or maybe I’m just obsessed with Richard Feynman which is the main subject of this book. Written by a new professor who had a nearby office to Feynman and whose counsel he sought for his own career during the last six years of his life. Humorous at times and written in a simple and flowing style which provides a view into an unusual world.
48. Nature’s Building Blocks: An A to Z Guide to the Elements by John Emsley. A very fun and interesting book. Each atom has its own unbelievable story-its history in universe, its interactions with people, its chemistry, the weird places different atoms show up in the earth system. The atoms are alphabetized and there is a story about each one. I had some issues with his descriptions of nature…they weren’t always as tight as they could have been but his undertaking was so broad, its impossible to get it all right. In other words he is a good researcher but he sometimes got snookered. I don’t fault him however and fully recommend this work to you.
49. The Mojave: A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert by David Darlington. This book casts a spell. It lays out a landscape, a special storied place of the American west, what is now known as Mojave National Monument . Edward Abbey was right—there is something about the desert and this book it to life. An incredible wilderness with sparkling washes and jagged mountains, few places on earth are as desolate or as beautiful. Whether the American desert attracts lunatics or turns people into lunatics once they get there is open to debate, but this book also shows us plenty of eccentric desert characters.
50. The Devil in the Mountains: A Search for the Origin of the Andes by Simon lamb. Nothing spectacular but nonetheless a solid and interesting book. Basically it weaves together a story of traveling and working in the Andes as a professional geologist and what we know about the formation history of this massive mountain range. It is interesting to look over the shoulder so to speak as the author drives across an immense landscape of exposed rock and to tell us about formation history. Fascinating.
51. No Oridinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman by Christopher Sykes. Great fun this book. Full of Feynman quotes, photos, stories, and people who spent time with him telling Feynman stories. I can not get enough of this guy. If you like Feynman this is a must read.
More will be posted when I find them.
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