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Science Books

October 19, 2007

The Toothpick: Technology and Culture
Henry Petroski (2007)

While the very idea of having to read over 450 pages about a tiny splinter of wood may make you reel in horror, Henry Petroski somehow manages to pull off a historic coup armed only with a humble toothpick. Just as he did in The Pencil, Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, takes a seemingly innocuous and simple inanimate object and imbues it with color, life, and a unique and interesting history. While nobody is ever likely to say that the toothpick is mightier than the sword (unless the only thing handy to pick your teeth with is a sword), the lowly toothpick is an invention as old as eating itself. To this end, it's all grist to the mill; just think of all of the great men and women throughout history who have desperately needed to purge their teeth of foodstuffs after a huge and satisfying chow-down. Down through the ages, the toothpick has appeared in many forms: grass, quill, gold, wood, or anything close at hand. Petroski writes that the emperor Nero was known to make his way through the banquet entrance hall with a silver toothpick in his mouth. As necessity is the mother of invention, the toothpick popped up all over the world simultaneously, which you'd think would stymie any attempts at a toothpick patent. Nonetheless, Petroski introduces us to a Bostonian by the name of Charles Forster, who was to become the originator of the American toothpick industry. Other colorful characters include a Spanish señorita who used to wield a toothpick in her mouth to prevent would-be suitors from stealing an unsolicited kiss from her lips. Thrown into the mix is an abundance of toothpick facts and figures, trivia, and inadvertent uses for the versatile toothpick.

Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration
Felipe Fernández-Armesto (2007)
ISBN: 0393330915

As daunting a task as it may seem, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has managed to successfully write an A to Z account of world exploration - and he does it with style. Unlike previous books on explorers and exploration, world-renowned scholar Fernández-Armesto, the Principe de Asturias Professor of Spanish Culture and Civilization at Tufts University, retraces the great explorers' steps, and puts them into a truly global context. In doing so, Fernández-Armesto reveals a rich and vibrant global tapestry of interconnected routes, which have cultivated lines of communication, trade, and cultures for thousands of years. Stretching even further back into human history, Fernández-Armesto covers the migration of Homo erectus throughout Africa and into Eurasia 1.5 million years ago. Candice Millard, of the New York Times Book Review, describes Pathfinders as "a rich study of humankind's restless spirit." But Pathfinders also delves deep to identify the reasons why humans seem to have an innate wanderlust. Economics, resources, and politics played their part in driving explorations, which in turn drove technological revolutions that spawned the likes of cartography, sails, and a cure for scurvy. Surprisingly, Fernández-Armesto's Pathfinders is not just a general overview of global exploration, and his detailed accounts of specific explorer's hardships, and how they fit into the overall scheme of global affairs is absolutely fascinating. With 16 color pages, 44 illustrations, and 48 maps, Pathfinders is a mandatory addition to any library.

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