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Science Books

May 10, 2007

Twilight Of The Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions And The Rewilding Of America
Paul S. Martin (2007)
ISBN: 0520252438

Slowly but surely, people are coming around to the idea that the beginning of the industrial age is likely what kick-started global warming. But Paul S. Martin, Emeritus Professor of Geosciences, Desert Laboratory, University of Arizona, takes this concept quite a few steps further, claiming that humans have in fact had an adverse affect on the environment for the last 50,000 years. Specifically, Martin focuses on the staggering loss of large mammals - such as giant armadillos, ground sloths, mastodons, and mammoths - that once populated North and South America as recently (geologically speaking) as 11,000 years ago. The highly accessible Twilight Of The Mammoths represents Martin's controversial "overkill" hypothesis, where he argues that humans have spent most of their history hunting such animals to the point of extinction. While Martin's theory may be controversial, the man and his ideas do command a degree of respect among his peers. "Whether or not you agree with Paul Martin," says Ross D. E. MacPhee, from the American Museum of Natural History, "he has shaped how we think about our Pleistocene ancestors and their role in transforming this planet." Along the way, Martin imparts various insights into the fascinating discipline of paleontology, and relates many of his own adventures in the field. With his own related discoveries, in combination with sound theory and methodology, Martin presents a convincing case for his "overkill" hypothesis. Assuming his hypothesis to be correct, Martin then goes on to consider how we may improve upon current conservation efforts, and the inevitable extinctions that will occur if we do not.

Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through The Pentagon's Scientific Underworld
Sharon Weinberger (2007)
ISBN: 156858329X

A top-secret weapons program implemented by the government is the quintessential subject of cloak-and-dagger narratives, but just how much is fact and how much is fiction is anybody's guess. Remarkably, defense reporter Sharon Weinberger shows how truth really can be stranger than fiction, in this gripping account of how the Pentagon sought and stumbled upon a weapons idea outlandish enough for any Get Smart episode. While there have been a number of weapons development projects that have been nothing more than funding sink-holes (Reagan's Star Wars, for instance), Weinberger singles out a bizarre weapon that the Pentagon sought, but ultimately failed, to make a reality. The "isomer bomb", as it was known, was an explosive with the same punch as a two-kiloton nuclear device packaged in a device the size of a hand grenade. It was back in 1998 when the idea for the isomer bomb first emerged, after a couple of Pentagon boffins were let loose in the lab (perhaps during a Pentagon Christmas party) with a dental X-ray machine and some unstable radioactive material. Taking the initiative on this serendipitous moment, Pentagon officials jumped at the chance of creating a high-energy, easily concealable isomer bomb, but soon came up against stiff opposition. The Pentagon's top brass attempted to render the opposition - which included the Pentagon's most important advisory body - toothless by claiming that the Russians were well on the way to making their own isomer bomb. Did such dirty tricks work? Well, despite the isomer bomb project being scrapped a number of times, funding for the weapon was somehow allowed to continue flowing, despite latter research showing the infeasibility of building such a weapon. To this end, Weinberger's ultimate message is for us to be wary of leaders like George W. Bush, who have more dollars than sense at their disposal.

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