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Science Books

September 14, 2006

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism
Aaron Sachs (2006)
ISBN: 0670037753

You might not have heard of him, but the Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt used to enjoy great fame, and he bestowed a great legacy upon American history, culture and science. Humboldt is widely considered to be the man responsible for getting the whole environmentalism ball rolling, with his ecological philosophies centered on the "unity of diversity." Aaron Sachs, professor of history and American studies at Cornell University and an award-winning environmental journalist, makes manifest Humboldt's influence by looking at the expeditions undertaken by four remarkable nineteenth century explorers. J. N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Wallace Melville and John Muir may all be notable scientists and explorers in their own right, but their great achievements and views on industrialization will always be tributes to Humboldt's immense vision. In following the exploits of each explorer and the time in which they lived, Sachs recounts pioneering geological surveys, Antarctic expeditions, disastrous journeys to the North Pole, and European influence on American thought. While the four men accomplished much and left behind many enriching legacies of their own, Sachs believes that Muir's obsession of presenting nature via museums was not in the spirit of Humboldt. Despite this, Muir's environmental organization the Sierra Club still exists to this today. Humboldt's presence was so great during his day that even writers and artists as celebrated as Thoreau, Whitman, Frederick Church, Poe and Melville have Humboldt to thank for many of their inspired works of genius. The Humboldt Current is an astonishingly good piece of writing and research, and an essential piece of American naturalist history that has been too long in coming. Science and history buffs and the lay reader will equally enjoy this outstanding book.

Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra
John Derbyshire (2006)
ISBN: 030909657X

If you'd sooner scoop out both of your eyes with a slide rule than look at algebraic mathematics, you should first know that algebra has an extremely fascinating history. Honestly! In what is really a historical ripping yarn, John Derbyshire, mathematician, linguist and systems analyst by profession, rockets us back to the time of Sodom and Gomorrah, Sumerian scribbling, Abel's proof, and the roots of algebra. Following that, Derbyshire weaves his way toward the higher mathematical abstractions of the nineteenth century, where évariste Galois, still in his teens, made some pioneering algebraic inroads. Aside from being thoroughly absorbing, there is a point to all of Derbyshire's historical sojourns. Derbyshire beautifully demonstrates how algebra was far more significant than the mere development of a useful mathematical tool, and was in fact the beginning of a new way of thinking. We find that comparative to other mathematical disciplines, algebra presented new ways in which to tackle many a stubborn old equation by focusing on abstract groups. This is the perfect book for those seeking some intellectually stimulating reading, but who are perhaps a little mathematically challenged. Science history fans will also get a kick out of Derbyshire's engrossing and even-handed approach to algebra's long and culturally winding development over the ages.

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