Category Archives: book reviews

Some (more) great reads from the history of natural history

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in the Amazon jungle, via wikimedia.org. Painting by Eduard Ender, circa 1850; from the collection of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Some are well known, some are obscure; some are old; some are new. (Some were borrowed, although at least this time around, none were blue.)  Here are a few more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (Yoon 2009, Norton).  This book, Yoon tells us, started out as a history and explanation of taxonomy – the science of naming and describing species.  It grew into something else, something a little bit strange, and something a bit difficult to put one’s finger on.  Continue reading

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Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars (book review)

Statistical Inference as Severe Testing: How to Get Beyond the Statistics Wars, by Deborah G. Mayo.  Cambridge University Press, 2018.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on about statistics, it’s that there are very few things we all agree on about statistics.  The “statistics wars” that Deborah Mayo would like to help us get beyond have been with us for a long time; in fact, the battlefield and the armies shift but they’ve been raging from the very beginning.  Is inference about confidence in a single result or about long-term error rates?  Is the P-value essential to scientific inference or a disastrous red herring holding science back?  Does model selection do something fundamentally different from null-hypothesis significance testing (NHST), and if so, what?  If we use NHST, is the phrase “nearly significant” evidence of sophisticated statistical philosophy or evil wishful thinking?  Is Bayesian inference irredeemably subjective or the only way to convert data into evidence?  These issues and more seem to generate remarkable amounts of heat – sometimes (as with Basic and Applied Social Psychology’s banning of the P-value) enough heat to seem like scorched-earth warfare*. Continue reading

How do successful academics write? Helen Sword’s “Air & Light & Time & Space” (review)

Helen Sword’s latest book, Air & Light & Time & Space, has a subtitle to make every academic salivate:  How Successful Academics Write.  Who among us wouldn’t like to know that secret?  Who wouldn’t like to know how academics can write more productively, and at the same time, take more pleasure from writing?  Continue reading

(More) reading on the history of natural history

Image: Chamaeleon, from Arcana, or, the Museum of Natural History (1811) by Thomas, Lord Busby (1811).  Which has nothing to do with the four books reviewed here; I just like the illustration.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Among the books, some are new, some are old; some are well known, some are obscure.  Here are four more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.  (There were six more in the first post in this series, here.)

Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America (Souder 2004, North Point Press).  This book, like its subject, is utterly fascinating.  I knew nothing about Audubon other than being familiar with his famous bird prints.  I assumed, somehow, that he was an upper-class gentleman with a distinguished family history.  In fact, he was a newcomer, born in Haiti and raised in France, and something of a ne’er-do-well: a serial exaggerator if not an outright liar, an atrociously poor businessman, and yet somehow an inspired artist who reinvented the depiction of natural history.  Continue reading

The Songs of Trees (review)

I’ve been reading (OK, I’m always reading, except when I’m writing).  This time: David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees.  Here are some thoughts. Continue reading

Poetry and Science – A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (review)

Some time ago now, I raved about Caribou Run: a book of poetry about – no, not about, but heavily referencing – science*.  Ever since I’ve meant to write about another book of poetry that crossed my path around the same time: Madhur Anand’s A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.  The books are totally unalike, except for two things: the way they explore connections between poetry and science (including scientific writing, a pet interest of mine), and the fact that I enjoyed each very much.

Caribou Run is the work of a poet fascinated by science.  A New Index is the work of a scientist who is also a poet.  The fact that I can’t decide whether this contrast makes a difference seems like good evidence that the boundary between the arts and science is porous from both sides. Continue reading

Worth a read: The Naming of the Shrew

naming of the shrewJohn Wright’s The Naming of the Shrew (Bloomsbury, 2014) is subtitled A Curious History of Latin Names.  As you may know, I’ve been  curious about Latin (or “scientific” names myself. Stumbling across The Naming of the Shrew, therefore, had me pretty excited*.  It turned out to be not quite what I thought, but none the less enjoyable for that.

Wright is a British natural historian with a particular interest in mushrooms (which he doesn’t hesitate to let show).  His Curious History is a curious little book. Continue reading