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Doug Brown's Picks


After completing his masters degree on rattlesnakes, Doug Brown turned down a Nobel Prize to come work at Powell's. He promptly set about attempting to pass on all his herpetological knowledge to the staff, to their constant trepidation and occasional bemusement. His doctors say he is doing much better now on the increased dosage and voltage levels, but there is still a long way to go before he can be allowed near cutlery or pictures of Tammy Faye Baker. He can be easily located at Powells; just stand in front of the reptile & amphibian subsection, and he'll appear before long.


Chaos, Complexity, & Kittens

How Nature WorksHow Nature Works by Per Bak
Bak is known among complexity science circles for his work with avalanches in sandpiles. He dropped one grain of sand at a time onto sandpiles and counted how many grains were displaced (they used video for this). He found that the distribution of number of avalanches of different sizes was very similar to distributions of earthquakes of various sizes, and even to distributions of extinction events. The interesting implication is both large and small avalanches were caused by the same little stimulus – a single grain of sand. Thus, just as large avalanches don't necessarily have large causes, large extinctions don't necessarily have large causes.

The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature by Philip Ball
This is one of those wonderful books that you can open up to any page and find something interesting. From why lightning looks like cracks in glass, to why trees look like river drainage systems, to how zebras get their stripes, this book never fails to stimulate and amaze. Incorporating many discoveries about pattern formation that have come out of complexity theory, but always grounded in what we can observe and measure, this is a worthy addition to any hungry mind's collection.

Schrodinger's Kittlens and the Search for RealitySchrödinger's Kittens and the Search for Reality by John Gribbin
While a book on quantum mechanics might not be most folks' idea of a lively read, this book may change your mind. What is light? What is matter? How can light (and atoms) behave like waves and particles? This book provides answers to these questions in plain English, or at least it tells what the current state of quantum theory suggests the answers might be. And who wouldn't want to know more about what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance?"

Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos by Roger Lewin
This overview of complexity science leans towards its applications to the life sciences, and particularly the work of Stuart Kauffman. According to this approach, life is a complex adaptive system that is capable of a high degree of self-order. Thus, natural selection may not be the prime force in creating natural structures after all (Kauffman even argues that natural selection is often a disruptive force). It's an interesting theory, and goes a long way toward explaining the punctuated equilibrium that we see in the fossil record. If you've ever wanted to know more about what all this chaos/complexity stuff is about, this is a good starting point.

Einstein's DreamsEinstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Speaking of Einstein, here is an absolute treasure. Lightman is a physicist, but don't let that put you off. This novel is really a collection of vignettes, each one describing a world in which time behaves differently. Framed as a series of Einstein's dreams, these chapters are more about how we live our lives than they are about physics. Some people seem to get "stuck" at some point in time, and others race through time as if pursued. I really can't recommend this poignantly beautiful book enough. Get it and your soul will thank you.


Snakes and Lions

Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in NatureSnakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature by Harry Greene
Those who know me will be surprised that I didn't get to snakes until halfway down the page, but here they are. This book was a long time in the making, and it was worth the wait. Greene took over the Herpetology course at Berkeley after Robert Stebbins retired (see field guide recommendations below) and knows his subject well. Accompanied by amazing photographs by the Fogdens, a husband-wife team who have traveled the world taking herp pictures for years, this well written book will be the primary general reference on snakes for many years to come. And I'm not just saying that because I'm referenced in it; it really is the single best book on snakes out there. Check it out even if you don't like snakes; by the time you're done, you will have at least gained an appreciation for what amazing creatures they are.

If A Lion Could Talk by Stephen Budianksy
Here is a refreshing antidote to the recent plague of anthropomorphic animal behavior titles about lamenting parrots, weeping elephants, and empathic dogs. Rather than take the easy and less rigorous road of projecting human thoughts and emotions onto animals, Budiansky looks at animal behavior from the angle that all animals are intelligent, but in ways we will never grok in fullness. Animals have different sensory modalities and different body morphologies, and these determine how an animal will interect with its environment. This is not to say animals are just robots acting out their genetic programs; they are complex organisms just as we are. But to project human qualities onto animals does us both a disservice, and prevents us from seeing how alien and wonderful the creatures we share this planet with really are. The title comes from Wittgenstein: "If a lion could talk, we wouldn't understand him." Budiansky alters this, arguing if a lion could talk, we could understand him; but he wouldn't be a lion any more.


Field Guides

Looking for a field guide? Here're the ones I use when I want to know what that thar thingy is:

For Stars
Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the UniverseNightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, 3rd Edition by Terence Dickinson
This is a larger format than a regular field guide, but it is one of the rare examples of spiral binding being a good idea; you can turn to the relevant chart you want and lay the book flat without having to prop it open. In addition to excellent star charts, though, what makes this a real treasure is the wealth of information on astronomy, telescopes, taking pictures, and anything you are likely to see while craning your neck up at the night sky.

For Plants
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon
Looking for a general plant guide for the Northwest? Look no further. With both photographs and line drawings, and spiced with interesting ethnobotanical tidbits, this is just plain a great guide.

For Birds
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North AmericaNational Geographic Field Guide To The Birds of North America, 3rd Edition
When I took Vertebrate Natural History at Berkeley, this was the bird guide they recommended, and I've been using it ever since. The range maps, natural history, and illustrations are all on the same page; some guides put all the maps in back, or all the pictures in the middle. The pictures here are good, often showing the animals in habitat, and there are useful comparisons of similar species.

For Reptiles & Amphibians (okay, I chose more than one, but you can never have enough herpetology reference books)
Pacific Northwest
Amphibians of Washington and Oregon by William P. Leonard
Reptiles of Washington and OregonReptiles of Washington and Oregon by William P. Leonard

These two companion guides are the best overall for northwest crawlies. The photographs are large and excellent, often showing the undersides as well as backs of the critters. There are good natural history notes as well.

Honorable mention
Amphibians of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia by Charlotte Corkran and Chris Thoms
While this book doesn't contain natural history descriptions, it does have excellent photographs and wonderful little charts showing what time of year you can expect to find each life stage, and what microhabitats each life stage is likely to be found in. More field guides should have this type of charts.

Western North America
Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians by Robert C. Stebbins (Peterson's series)

Stebbins is the classic, and though it contains drawings instead of photographs, the drawings are clear and readily definable. The natural history information is well written and informative, which is understandable since Stebbins taught the herpetology course at Berkeley for many years.

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