Of Chemie, Cosmos, and Climate

What’s Eating the Cosmos tackles some of the big questions in modern cosmology, beginning with the basics — how do we know what’s out there? Where is it, what is it made of? — and continuing onward to the more changing questions, those which stretch the limits of our imagination. Although Davies is dealing with heady topics, including the plausibility of time travel, the evaluation of the universe’s fate, and even why we have matter at all. Although I can’t pretend to fully understand all of the subjects discussed — relativity and quantum mechanics are demanding topics, to say the least — Davies’ writing is lucid, using clear illustrations, and provides an outline education that allows the reader to come away with a sense of having a better idea of the shape and fate of the universe.

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid  caught my eye immediately, not only for its title but for its subject: climate change biology.  Although  humans have the ability to escape within our heads and pretend things which are happening aren’t, really,   plants and other animals live much closer to Earth and cannot remove themselves from facts. When faced with the threat of climate change, they must either move, adapt, or die.   I have previously read of how some plants and animals have adapted to intense environmental challenges created by human activity (Unnatural Selection),  was eager to dive into this one.  Given the complexities of global ecosystems,  it’s not surprising to learn that altered circumstances are throwing things into disarray: one potentially disastrous trend is inducing mismatches between plant blooms and the re-emergence of their pollinators.  The struggle for survival is not a recent development, though, and  both flora and fauna alike are altering themselves to survive: starfish are withering in the warming waters of the Eastern seaboard, but now able to expand into northern waters once too frigid for their tolerance.  At least a quarter of the Earth’s animal population is actively on the move, changing its ranges, and possibly up to 80% of populations are in flux. Plants, too, are getting in on the action – trees moving their ranges uphill, or dandelions altering their leave shapes.  Although  the weirding effect is potentially catastrophic, it’s also an exciting if unnerving time to be a biologist, given the extraordinary display of plasticity we now have the opportunity to witness. 

Chemistry for Breakfast brought another interesting title to the table, authored  by the most compelling chemistry teacher in media since Walter White.  Mai Thi-Nyugen Kim’s night gig is YouTube star, however, not meth kingpin, and she has a very popular channel called “maiLab”  that offers science-ed videos in German. Nguyen-Kim recounts a day in the life of a chemist, using the day’s events to deliver an introduction to the basics of die Chemie.  The personal, narrative style succeeds brilliantly and  offers side-lessons into the grueling workday of a doctoral candidate.  As Nguyen-Kim guides readers through the basics of chemistry – the classic atomic model, the interactions of valence electrons,  the differing kinds of bonds, etc – she also offers practical at-home experiments to illustrate the lessons being offered.  I’ve never encountered a chemistry book this readable before, and was disappointed to find that her YouTube channel (which I’d intended to dive into) only had German content.  Nguyen-Kim’s passion for the subject and clarity in delivering its principles makes her first book a valuable one for readers who want to retain some basic appreciation of both the spirit of science and the study of what matter is and how it changes.  

I’m including a video from maiLab below to give you an idea of her personality. Those who don’t speak German can turn on close captioning, and via settings turn on auto-translate. Google does an impressive job of on-the-fly English captions!

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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