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The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural Historyby Nancy Pick
Synopses & Reviews
Where do you find Nabokov's butterflies, George Washington's pheasants, and the only stuffed bird remaining from the Lewis and Clark expedition? The vast collections of animals, minerals, and plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are among the oldest in the country, dating back to the 1700s. In the words of Edward O. Wilson, the museum stands as both "cabinet of wonder and temple of science." Its rich and unlikely history involves literary figures, creationists, millionaires, and visionary scientists from Asa Gray to Stephen Jay Gould. Its mastodon skeleton — still on display — is even linked to one of the nineteenth century's most bizarre and notorious murders.
The Rarest of the Raretells the fascinating stories behind the extinct butterflies, rare birds, lost plants, dazzling meteorites, and other scientific and historic specimens that fill the museum's halls. You'll learn about the painting that catches Audubon in a shameful lie, the sand dollar collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, and dozens of other treasures in this surprising, informative, and often amusing tour of the natural world.
"Rather like a natural history museum, this book contains arresting visuals and intriguing facts but has a vaguely musty air about it. Pick, a staff writer for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, traces the growth of the institution and the accretion of its millions of animal, vegetable, fossil and mineral specimens, asserting the continuing relevance of collecting and studying whole organisms in this age of molecular biology. (As Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson writes in the introduction, 'Biology could not have advanced without the collections of museums like this one.') The bulk of the book is devoted to photographs of flora and fauna (or rather, their taxidermied or fossilized remains), accompanied by matter-of-fact commentary about their biology or provenance. Stuffed birds, pickled turtle embryos and tapeworms taken from the intestinal tracts of 'upper-crust Bostonians' share space with a haunting fossil butterfly and an awesome plesiosaur skull. Other relics, though, fail to impress: Vladimir Nabokov's collection of butterfly genitalia, for instance, probably needs to be seen in person. The most interesting sections are those that delve into the science behind the specimens, such as the mini-essays on exotic animals and the physics of blue coloration, but these, too, are cursory and rare. 95 color photos not seen by PW. Agent, Anne Edelstein." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Book News Annotation:
In his introduction to this photo essay on selections from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, famed sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson (entomology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard U.) credits such collections with a role in advancing biology. A museum staff writer traces the evolution of this leading American collection and describes some of what an early director called its "unbelievable number of strange odds and ends." These include specimens from the expeditions of Cook, Lewis & Clark, and Darwin.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Nancy Pick, a former journalist for the Baltimore Sun,is a staff writer for the Harvard Museum of Natural History. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, two sons, and two leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius).
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