New in Paper: Stylish Writing

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century isn’t just a good writing guide. It’s one of the best books published in the past year. Wise, funny, practical and, as of this writing, ranked in the top 20 of three Amazon writing-guide categories, it will find an even wider audience after its Penguin-paperback debut this week. Pinker isn’t a scold who ascribes bad writing to laziness or ill will. He explains why otherwise well-intended writers fail. For example, are scientists and other jargon-drenched writers trying to shut the rest of us out? No, he says. In the subtitle of a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker nails it: “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He’s also strategic, preparing readers before laying a serious but fascinating grammar lesson on them unlike anything you’ll find in The Elements of Style, in print for 56 years. May Pinker’s words on writing enjoy a similar run.

Nature’s Gifts

Over the years, Princeton University Press has published some of the best natural histories and field guides available. For your consideration this holiday season: Conus of the Southeastern United States and Caribbean by Alan J. Kohn and Trees of Eastern North America and its companion that covers the West, both volumes by Gil Nelson, Christopher J. Earle and Richard Spellenberg, edited by Amy K. Hughes, with illustrations by David More. Listed for $80 (hardback) on Amazon last time we checked, Conus is for the serious naturalist

Detail from Conus.
Detail from Conus.

and a must for the hard-core beachcomber. Kohn, a foremost authority on cone snails, displays his scholarship on every page, with 2,100 mesmerizing color shell photographs of these fascinating gastropods. Conus is likely to remain in the home library or on a (sturdy) coffee table; readers will bring shells to it, not vice versa. The flexible-flapped tree guides sell for less than $30 and are made for the woods. These volumes are masterfully designed, and More’s exquisitely detailed renderings will ensure that weekend botanists never mistake their Hercules’ club for a common hoptree.

Equation Persuasion

Many a general reader’s mathematical journey ends on encountering the first formula. An Equation for Every Occasion: 52 Formulas and Why They Matter (Johns Hopkins) remedies that through storytelling, placing numerical and scientific concepts into familiar and fathomable context. Take a_n = a\,r^{n-1}. This is the geometric progression at the heart of classical Ponzi schemes. Author John M. Henshaw’s straightforward explanation on why this equation matters is both cogent and, after a sympathetically brief introduction, equation-free: “Each new generation of investors has to be much larger than the one before in order to make the necessary payoffs, and eventually the whole thing collapses under its own weight.” In surveying the Drake equation, Amonton’s friction law, crowd-size estimating, surface tension and other topics as grand as gravity itself, Henshaw prevents math-exploration from collapsing under its own inaccessibility.

Warm-up Exercise

The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia) packs a big premise into a thin paperback that throws wicked jabs. Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway play themselves as a composite in the Second People’s Republic of China. The future historian looks back in detached dismay at events that led to the Great Collapse of 2093, a period of climate-change-triggered upheaval. The scenes are eerily plausible, and no one escapes unscathed. Scientists get tagged for “an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind” that engenders public indifference or confusion about even imminent threats. But the main punching bags are “free” market (in quotes; read “rigged”) ideologues and political minions like those in our future Congress who pass the “The Sea Level Rise Denial Bill.” Seems absurd, but this imagined law of the land is based on a real 2012 North Carolina statute that reduced an ostensibly science-savvy state to late-night comedy fodder. By the end of this century, nobody’s laughing.

Meet the Beetles

From Beetles of Eastern North AmericaGranted, Beetles of Eastern North America (pictured here: the mouthparts of a specimen from the leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae) won’t be for everyone. But anyone east of the Mississippi with more than a passing interest in insects will want a copy. Now. Author Arthur V. Evans and his publisher (Princeton) have documented the impressive range of size, shape, color and behavior of these ubiquitous outdoor companions, with striking pictures and detailed descriptions of more than 1,400 species in 560 pages, and they’ve kept it all, miraculously, under 40 dollars (paper).

Retouching a Nerve

Patricia S. Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves (Norton) stimulated a macrorave in these pages when it came out in hardback last year (“Cogito Ergo and Then Some.”) Just released in paperback, the book owes “its narrative chops,” wrote reviewer Jacob Berkowitz, to the author’s “storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal.”

What gives the book its narrative chops is that Churchland grounds her discussion in storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal. – See more at:
What gives the book its narrative chops is that Churchland grounds her discussion in storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal. – See more at:

What gives the book its narrative chops is that Churchland grounds her discussion in storytelling and anecdotes, both professional and personal. – See more at:

Boom, Bust, Repeat

Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent (Princeton) explicates the strange forces that have driven U.S. science funding since World War II. Michael S. Teitelbaum, a Harvard Law School senior researcher, describes the repeated cycles of alarm (national security, competitiveness and other triggers) leading to Congressional largesse, followed by indifference and stagnation, which itself can fuel the next alarm. Teitelbaum gracefully navigates the often-bogus data that have been retreaded to foment fear and steer resources and favors toward research and training in the STEM disciplines, often to the advantage of particular fields for arbitrary reasons. One of his most cogent critiques targets various interest groups’ bizarre habit of dumping elementary, high school and higher ed math and science into one rhetorical stewpot. Despite some arguably necessary repetition, Falling Behind should be a touchstone for anyone wishing to understand how U.S. science funding really works.

Winged Rarities

Each year, some of the millions of birds that migrate extraordinary distances to reach breeding or wintering destinations drift off course to the delight of dedicated birders encountering these improbable vagrants. Rare Birds of North America (Princeton) offers the first complete print compilation of such recorded sightings, with accounts and illustrations of 262 species.KeyWestQuail-Dove (Pictured here: a Key West quail-dove.) Authors Steve N.G. Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell include detailed field identifications and plates illustrating sex dimorphisms and seasonal and juvenile marks. An introductory section explores vicissitudes of global air currents and the quest for better food sources that drive these rare bird sightings—and provide hints for birders seeking to add to their life lists. For anyone else simply interested in birds new to North America, this volume is a valuable resource.

Into the Wild

We take it on faith that Alaskans love the wilderness. Yet many of the state’s city-dwellers say in surveys that they avoid venturing deep outdoors for one reason: bears. It defies reason. Even in a state where grizzlies roam in the tens of thousands, attacks are rare compared to the threats of everyday life surrounding people and their machines. Compare the notion “of perishing in a car accident with that of being reduced to meat by teeth and claws,” writes Sherry Simpson, exploring one of the many bear-human dualities in her gripping and sweeping Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska (Kansas). “The prospect seems not only horrific but also profoundly wrong because it fractures our idea of ourselves as the apex species.” Simpson gracefully weaves her observations and interviews with historical and scientific accounts in riffs on the bear as a metaphor, social animal, target of nature-watchers and hunters alike and, not least, as predator. At her best, Simpson keeps company with the likes of Barry Lopez, Rick Bass and Gretel Ehrlich.