Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book of the Week: Darwin for Children

The great scientific discoveries that have been made during the many incredible exploring expeditions throughout history have long interested both scientists and laymen alike, and perhaps none more so than the voyages undertaken by Charles Darwin himself on the H.M.S. Beagle. While the appeal of the narratives of these expeditions to adults may seem obvious, engaging children in such works is not always simple. The concern with "interest[ing] children in the study of natural history, and of physical and political geography"so that they might exhibit enthusiasm for nature throughout their lives is the chief concern of this week's book of the week, What Mr. Darwin saw in his voyage round the world in the ship "Beagle" (1880), compiled from Darwin's Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H. M. S. Beagle.

In a preface directed towards parents, the author writes,

"The compiler has thought it an advantage to connect stories about a great variety of animals with one person, and he an observer of such credibility and authority that little if anything that was learned of him would have to be unlearned. Mr. Darwin is, of course, pre-eminently such an observer. On the other hand, by carefully connecting these stories with the places on the earth's surface where the animals were studied, a correct notion will be had of the distribution of the animal kingdom, with a corresponding insight into the geography of the globe in its broadest sense."

What Mr. Darwin Saw is divided into four parts: Animals, Man (describing the people and cultures encountered on the voyage), Geography (describing the cities, rivers, mountains, valleys, plains, etc. seen on the expedition), and Nature (discussing the "grander terrestrial processes and phemonena" encountered). The original text comes from Darwin's writings, though some small alterations have been made for the publication to take into account audience and overall organization. Since the changes are so minimal, the work is still attributed to Charles Darwin.

Before beginning the main narrative of What Mr. Darwin Saw, children are given a short biography of Charles Darwin and a description of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Children are then urged to test their own powers of observation by counting how many animals they can find in an accompanying woodcut by Thomas Bewick.

The description of the animals, people, geography and nature in the following sections of text are rich and inviting, as they are presented in a highly conversational tone produced from Darwin's own observations. Children would be highly entertained to read Darwin's description of the Guanaco, or Wild Llama's, reactions around strange behavior in humans. They would likewise be thrilled to read of the dangerous encounter Darwin and his team experienced with an ice cliff, and their imaginations would be stimulated by Darwin's description of the coral and coral architects around the visited lagoon islands. And while these writings may have been directed at children, they are nevertheless singularly engrossing for adults as well. So, whether child or adult, take a few minutes to look through Darwin's narrative of the biodiversity, cultures and geography encountered on that monumental voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.

This week's book of the week, What Mr. Darwin saw in his voyage round the world in the ship "Beagle" (1880), by Charles Darwin, was contributed by the University of California Libraries.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Book of the Week: The Peregrine and Modern Aviation

While it's no secret that birds are amazing creatures, what may not be common knowledge is the role that some birds have played in the development of human technology. Specifically, the role Peregrine Falcons played in the development of jets.

The general description of the Falco peregrinus on EOL describes the relationship between the Peregrine Falcon and modern aviation:

"Falcons are known for their high speed flight, and the Peregrine is thought to be the fastest bird, accurately clocked at 90 meters per the making of airplanes, especially jets, humans came onto a problem. As planes got faster and faster, the engines started choking out at a certain speed. It seems that the air, instead of going into the cowl of the engine, encountered a wall of still air and engine cowl and so split and went around the engine. Puzzled, the researchers wondered how the falcons could still breathe at such incredible speeds. Looking at the falcon's nostrils, they found the answer. In the opening of the nostril is a small cone that protrudes a bit. Fashioning a similar cone in the opening of the jet engine, they discovered that the air could pass into the engine even at great speed. Once again a human invention is preceded by an animal adaptation." (Chaffee Zoo 2007)

While the role the Peregrine Falcon played in the development of the airplane may be unknown to most, the role that humans played in the survival of this species is perhaps more commonly understood. The conservation status of the Peregrine Falcon was, until recently, decidedly grim, as the use of a variety of chemicals threatened the well-being of this bird. The use of pesticides resulted in an accumulation of small quantities in the tissues of small birds and mammals, of which the Peregrine Falcon's diet consists. These accumulations "become concentrated enough in predatory birds, such as falcons, to kill them or render them incapable of producing offspring. Organochlorine pesticides (DDT and dieldrin) have been proven to reduce the birds' ability to produce eggshells with sufficient calcium content, making the egg shells thin and more likely to break. Peregrine falcon populations dropped precipitously in the middle of the 20th century. All breeding pairs vanished in the eastern United States."

Fortunately, the story ends well for this species. "A successful captive breeding and reintroduction program, combined with restrictions in pesticide use, has been the basis of an amazing recovery by peregrine falcons. Now the use of many of the chemicals most harmful to these birds is restricted." As a result of these combined efforts, after over twenty years' time on the federal list of endangered species, the Falco peregrinus was finally taken off of the list in the 1990s. Thus, the "incredible recovery of peregrine falcons has become a perfect example of how effective human conservation can be."

This week's book of the week, A Dictionary of Birds, by Alfred Newton (1893-96), takes a historical and descriptive look at the Peregrine Falcon, discussing first how the term "Falcon," over the course of nomenclatural history, was commonly applied quite liberally to birds of the Linnean genus Falco (containing many un-related birds of prey) , but later came to be separated into five distinct groups, of which the "typical" falcon is "by common consent" the Peregrine. The author then takes the time to go into a detailed description of the Peregrine Falcon.

Take a few moments to investigate the Peregrine Falcon, both within this week's book of the week and on EOL. And take a moment to reflect that, just as the Peregrine Falcon influenced the development of modern aviation, so too have many other species enabled further advancement for humans throughout history. Indeed, humans have much still to learn from nature.

This week's book of the week, A Dictionary of Birds, by Alfred Newton (1893-96), was contributed by the MBLWHOI library.