Confessions of a Science Librarian

Reading Diary: Unfeathered bird, Marie Curie and her daughters, Creation & Engineers of victory

Some capsule reviews of books I’ve finished over the last little while, in the spirit of catching up.

van Grouw, Katrina. The Unfeathered Bird. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 304pp. ISBN-13: 978-0691151342

This is a seriously beautiful coffee table-sized scientific illustrations book on birds. Basically the idea of the book is to explore birds through drawings mostly of whole or partial skeletons but also some of musculature and “plucked” bodies. A bit odd, a bit creepy but breath-taking. The book opens with a very general section on what birds have in common and then goes into much more detail about various different families of birds, such as accipitres (vultures, birds of prey, owls), picae (parrots, turacos, etc), anseres (waterfowl, penguins, etc), grallae (flamingoes, herons, etc), and gallinae (gamebirds, screamers, etc) and passeres (pigeons, nightjars, etc).

Each section has some explanatory text, detailed but not overwhelming for the non-specialist, and occasionally a bit whimsical. I certainly learned a lot.

While probably not suitable for academic collections, this might be fun for a public library that collects nature art books and certainly as a gift for any bird lover.



Emling, Shelley. Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 256pp. ISBN-13: 978-0230115712

This is a really terrific book covering a lot of less-well-know things about Marie Curie and her family. Mostly covering Curie’s life from her 1921 trip to the USA until her death in 1934 it covers a lot of ground. Interestingly, the focus is on her administrative and fundraising duties for the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw rather than her directly scientific contributions. The book also covers her personal life after the death of Pierre Curie quite a bit including some of the politics she found her self not-so-willingly enmeshed in.

Perhaps what makes this book most valuable is that is doesn’t end with her death. It picks right up and tells the stories of her daughters Irene and Eve, both of whom had lives as interesting as their mother’s. Irene of course was a renowned scientist but Eve also lead a very public life as a journalist so I very much appreciated their stories to complement Marie’s.

I would recommend Marie Curie and her daughters to any library which collects scientific biographies or on women in science. Most public and high school libraries would benefit from this book as well.



Rutherford, Adam. Creation: How Science Is Reinventing Life Itself. New York: Current, 2013. 288pp. ISBN-13: 978-1617230059

The species of book that this belongs to can be problematic sometimes. It’s a popular introduction to a new and hot field of academic study. The danger? Too dumbed down or too sexed up. Fortunately Adam Rutherford’s introduction to synthetic biology doesn’t fall into either camp at all. I’t actually a pretty reasonable introduction, providing decent detail at an appropriate level for the target audience. The target audience being fairly scientifically literate people who want to catch up a bit on the whole biotech field and see what all the fuss is about.

The first section gives a fairly long overview of where life came from on the planet, both from a geological and biological perspective. The second section goes into some fairly detailed examples of what synthetic biology can do, with some interesting case studies in biofuels, bio circuitry, food crops, plug and play remixing and others. The final chapter makes the case that biotechnology is a transformative technology that’s worth pursuing.

Overall, a fine book that might be too basic for research collections but is completely appropriate for collections aimed at non-scientists. In that vein, public libraries would find it useful.



Kennedy, Paul. Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War. New York: Harper Collins, 2013. 464pp. ISBN-13: 978-1400067619

This is a very cool idea for a book: take a look at all the major technological innovations by the Allies during World War II and analyse how they contributed to their ultimate success against the Nazis. This ideal book would balance scientific and engineering detail with keen insight into military and political strategy and tactics along with solid narrative drive to paint a vivid picture of how those technologies made a difference on the ground, in the air and at sea.

This isn’t quite that book, but it’s close. What’s it’s perhaps lacking from that ideal vision is a bit more on the science and engineering side, in particular more on the scientists and engineers who researched, designed and developed such key technologies as radar, better fighter engines and all the rest. In other words, this is a bit more of a traditional popular history book than I was hoping for, with an emphasis on political and military/operational detail.

But not to any great detriment. This is still one of the best books I read in 2013, vivid and fascinating. It worked as a wonderful companion to Antony Beevor’s The Second World War

(Copies of The Unfeathered Bird, Creation and Marie Curie and Her Daughters provided by the publishers.)