Friday, 26 October 2012

"An Orchard Invisible – a natural history of seeds" by Jonathan Silvertown

Reviewed by Linda Mingay

The title for this book is something of a misnomer. Certainly it covers what the title leads you to expect but there is much more within so don’t be misled. I found useful material in the book relating to many parts of the curriculum at all stages:- Extended Science, first year modules such as Biodiversity and Molecular and Cellular Biology; second year modules such as Ecology and Organism:Environment Interactions; through to third year modules such as Speciation and Diversity and Plant Exploitation are all covered.

On the whole, unlike Frogs, Flies and Dandelions, the examples contained within are not in the common parlance of our lecturers so the book feels like a new look at the subjects. Examples are
  • Following the causative agent for Lyme disease and linking its spread to the masting of oak trees in North America was an interesting progression that I’d not come across before, despite having the illness mentioned in many separate modules over the whole course.
  •  I’d just read the chapter on the coco de mer when I actually saw one of its seeds on display in the information centre at the Eden Project last week so not only could I recognise it instantly but I also knew its remarkable history and its strange but rather wonderful germination method – hopefully that will whet your appetite to read this book!
  •  The genetic basis of our colour vision, its evolution and colour-blindness (common in my own family) was explained clearly and concisely and I now understand why my Dad and nephew can’t see red flowers on green shrubs but my other nephew can!
  • Many of the examples show how we interact with plants and seeds more than we imagine.
All-in-all it’s a useful read that demonstrates that pulling biology apart into separate disciplines can mask the way that processes going on at molecular level impact on an ecosystem. My only small criticism of the book is that its editing is clunky – I don’t like the way that on the bottom of one page “sci-“ appears and you have to turn over the page to see ”ence” and know that you’ve read “science”. It strikes me as a pointless attempt to save space and interferes with the read.

Monday, 1 October 2012

"Frogs Flies and Dandelions: the making of species" by Menno Schilthuizen

Review by Linda Mingay (on BSc Biological Sciences)

"Frogs, Flies and Dandelions" is a thought-provoking read in many senses. It covers allopatric and sympatric speciation in detail, clarifying the different ways that species diverge from one another. Many of the examples quoted are ones we've come across before in lectures (chiclids, sticklebacks etc), both in Biodiversity in the first year and in Ecology in the second year but there are many other examples used in the book that reveal the difficulties in identifying how and why speciation occurs. The writing is straight-forward and while sources are clearly quoted, their use is not cumbersome and intrusive in the way that they often are in scientific papers and some other books. In fact, overall the use of vernacular works well, helping to keep the text accessible. Let's face it, when you see a section titled "wondrous willies" it makes you want to read on!