Monday, August 27, 2012

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

Archaeopteryx is known as the first bird, and its fossils are strikingly beautiful. They are also still extremely controversial, even 150 years after their discovery in Germany. Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight by Pat Shipman starts by tracing the history of each specimen found in the Solnhofen limestone region of Bavaria. The bulk of the book however is devoted to the scientific data gleaned from these fossils over the past century and a half, and Shipman's analysis of all the theories, both established and well as controversial, in regards to avian evolution and the birth of flight.

Taking Wing is comprised of punny chapter titles wherein well-known avian phrases are used to discuss certain topics. For example. the chapter entitled "Birds of a Feather" thus deals with the development of feathers in bird evolution; "A Bird in the Hand" relates the evolution of wings as extensions of the five-finger extremities; "One Fell Swoop" shares one specific theory where birds may have acquired flight from a "trees down" or arboreal hypothesis (versus a "ground up" or cursorial hypothesis). Scientists are divided how birds developed flight: were they tree-dwellers that glided, or swooped to the ground, later to develop full flapping flight, or did the ancestors of birds live on the ground, and developed flight after a run-and-jump takeoff? This debate was argued at a 1984 international Archaeopteryx conference in Eichstätt, Germany (home to a fossil discovery in 1951). The conference closed with the following statement, which did not please everyone and is still argued today:

"Archaeopteryx was an active, cursorial predator and was also facultatively arboreal; it was a glider and a feebly powered, or flapping flier. Finally, it was incapable of takeoff and flight from the ground upward..."

Shipman spent exhaustive care explaining bird anatomy, avian musculature and bone structure yet at times it felt that she was speaking to fellow ornithologists and not to armchair fossil fans like myself. I did like that Shipman addressed the reader and asked questions on our behalf, so she knew whom she was writing for. She also linked the chapters together by asking a question at the end of one and then endeavouring to answer it at the beginning of another, so the book flowed well and made the story of bird evolution come alive.

Some scientists do not even believe that Archaeopteryx could fly. It was profoundly interesting to read their theories for the origins of wings and feathers, since if wings and feathers preceded flight, then they had to have another primal purpose. As I read Shipman's analyses of all these theories, I came to the conclusion that Archaeopteryx could very possibly not be a fully developed and flying bird as we know today, but rather a creature caught in the middle of reptilian to avian evolution. At the end of Taking Wing, Shipman writes:

"The key to understanding Archaeopteryx is recognizing that it was not a bird as birds are today, but an evolutionary fledgling. We should not have expected otherwise. I do not fool myself, however, that the debates are over or that the arboreal proponents will suddenly abandon their position."

At any time the fossil record can yield new light on questionable theories or refute the claims of others. The discovery of feathered dinosaurs has cast doubt on some theories and strengthened the "ground up" or cursorial hypothesis. Shipman offers care and caution in future avian analysis:

"The fossil record of avian evolution is a tangled wing. Disentangle it properly and you can suddenly fly and soar to new heights, gaining new perspectives and understandings. Leave it tangled and your attempts at flight are bound to end in disastrous crashes."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Coal: A Human History

Who would have known that coal had such an interesting history? I did not know that before it was used as a fuel or heat source, the Romans used coal to make jewellery. In the British isles, coal was used for centuries exclusively as a medium for cremating the dead. No one dreamt, or dared, to use this sacred source of fire for any other purpose but cremation. Only when the forests started to disappear in the English countryside did people have a change of opinion and brought coal into their homes.
George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, which I recently reviewed for this blog, tells of the poverty found in northern British coal-mining towns. Freese describes a similar way of life which was unfortunately the norm, centuries before Orwell wrote his account in 1936: 
"Coal does not make us think of the rich, but of the poor. It evokes bleak images of soot-covered coal miners trudging from the mines, supporting their desperately poor families in grim little company towns."
"Coal created a new gulf between classes."
Coal changed the way people lived, and provided the fuel that incited the Industrial Revolution. With coal as the new fuel source, the days of wood-burning trains were numbered. Although horrifying to experience, Freese had me practically in tears laughing over the hazards of riding in such trains:
"The worst problems were on the train itself, since many early passenger cars were roofless, and all were made of wood. For example, the inaugural trip of the Mohawk Valley line in New York in 1831 (just a year after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line) was marred when red-hot cinders rained down upon passengers who, just moments before, had felt privileged to be experiencing this exciting new mode of travel. Those who had brought umbrellas opened them, but tossed them overboard after the first mile once their covers had burned away. According to one witness, 'a general melee [then] took place among the deck-passengers, each whipping his neighbor to put out the fire. They presented a very motley appearance on arriving at the first station.'
"Sparks on another train reportedly consumed $60,000 worth of freshly minted dollar bills that were on board, singeing many passengers in the process; according to one complaint, some of the women, who wore voluminous and flammable dresses, were left 'almost denuded.' Over a thousand patents were granted for devices that attempted to stop these trains from igniting their surroundings, their cargo, and their passengers; but the real cure would come later in the century, when coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice. In the meantime, some of the more safety conscious railways had their passengers travel with buckets of sand in their laps to pour on each other when they caught fire."
Men, and up until the early twentieth century, children risked their lives working in dangerous mines. Cave-ins and floods were a regular part of the job. Miners were not free from the hazards of coal even after retirement, as lung disease rose to the surface as a silent killer. Today working conditions for miners are a lot better, yet this time it is the environment that is paying the price. Acid rain is killing lakes and the creatures that live in them. Freese writes about the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and the prejudicial treatment--as well as environmentally destructive allowances--awarded to some nations, like Chinese Peking ( = the People's Republic of China) in particular.
Coal has an extensive bibliography, which I always like to read over, as well as 32 pages of totally useless endnotes. Freese did not number any passages to indicate accompanying notes. One had no idea while reading the book that any passage was to be elaborated upon in an endnote. The only way to keep track of the notes was to keep your finger constantly in the endnotes section and by flipping back and forth to see if there was any note on that page, since the notes section only listed notes by the page they were on and not even where they were on the page; definitely not the way to enjoy reading a book.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie

A.A. Knopf Canada, 2009

A very entertaining book with lots of useful information about the dangerous chemicals we take into our bodies from consumer products and the environment.  They write in an engaging, personal manner rather than delving too deeply into the chemistry that this topic could easily get lost in. If it had been weighed down by reams of scientific description, I would likely have just skimmed the book rather than read it cover to cover.  It is clearly meant for general consumers (like me) without a solid background in chemistry.  

They talk about the chemicals, what kinds of products they are used in, and how to reduce their usage in your own life.  I also found the history of each chemical and the challenges (past and ongoing) to control these substances particularly interesting.  

This book covers phthalates (plasticizers), PFOA (Teflon), brominated flame retardants, mercury, triclosan (antibacterial agents), 2,4-D (pesticides), and  BPA (found in clear plastics).  All of this takes place within the context of the authors' personal experiment to load up their bodies with these chemicals through continuous usage of designated products, and then test their levels.  I'm not sure what to think of the authors wilfully taking these chemicals into their bodies, but the point was made that we all do this to some degree.

Discussion Questions
  1. How worried are you about the absorption/ingestion of toxic chemicals?  Did this concern you before reading this book?
  2. Is there a particular chemical that you are most worried about?  
  3. Do you regularly use any of the product types identified in this book?
  4. Are there any chemicals that you avoid already?
  5. What do you think of the authors’ methodology? How reliable is it scientifically?
  6. What do you think of the documented efforts to control these substances, and how the industries respond?
  7. They state, “our choices as consumers really do have a profound, and very rapid, effect on the pollution levels in our bodies.”  Will you change anything in your life in response to this book?
  8. Many of the products were created with good intentions, and consumers obviously purchase these items.  How can we strike a better balance between the needs of our health/environment and the development of consumer goods?
  9. Have you noticed a shift in the way society views environmental chemicals?
  10. The authors live and work in Toronto, Canada.  Did the Canadian perspective of this book affect your reading in any way?
Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Who's Your City? by Richard Florida

Vintage Canada, c2009

Living and working in the greater Toronto area, there has been much consideration (and debate) over the last few years about what kind of cities and urban spaces we collectively want – what kind of cities should Toronto and Mississauga be?  What should our waterfront look like, how should certain areas be redeveloped, what kinds of transit, roads, bike paths etc. would make our cities great?

I heard an interview once between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and CBC’s Matt Galloway, where Galloway asked Mayor Ford what he loved about Toronto.  I thought that this was a great question to ask a mayor, and I was keen to hear his answer, unfortunately what we got instead was a few of his usual talking points – finances and cleaning up graffiti. [Story]  

Richard Florida is much more in tune about what makes a city great.  He states, “Toronto is one of the very few places in the world with the capacity to become the model of a full-blown, creative, sustainable, and inclusive community.”  

In “Who’s Your City,” Florida outlines a methodology to evaluate cities based on a series of community attributes: physical and economic security, basic services, leadership, openness, and aesthetics.  These concepts make for a good book club discussion, especially if club members live in different communities or lifestyles.  This book could also benefit from discussions timed around municipal elections.

  1. Are Richard Florida’s theories about a “creative class” only applicable to a pampered elite?
  2. Do you feel part of a “mega-region?”
  3. Is there a clustering force within cities – polarizing people by income/class?
  4. Does “place” matter?  What do you love about your city?
  5. Does owning real estate lock people into a place or lifestyle?
  6. Happiness and satisfaction is more than money, so how much of a person’s happiness comes from where they are?
  7. Do cities/communities have an overall personality? i.e. do certain temperaments fit better in certain places?
  8. How many times have you moved in your life?  How much control did you have about where you would live?
  9. If you were looking to move, would this book help you decide where to go?
  10. What could Richard Florida say about your city?

The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the authors, and don't necessarily reflect the opinions of the Mississauga Library System or the City of Mississauga.