News about the Science Shelf archive of book reviews, columns, and comments by Fred Bortz

Issue #26, Midwinter 2008 edition

[Skip to Special News about Science, Evolution, and Creationism]

Dear Science Readers,

Since the previous Science Shelf newsletter, I have added a few reviews that were in progress or only anticipated at that time. My personal reviewing pace has slowed temporarily, but I hope to get back to normal soon. Meanwhile, as noted last time, I would like to maintain The Science Shelf as a site where people come to discover interesting new science books, so I welcome your e-mails recommending titles to other science readers. I will post those recommendations with names, pseudonyms, or anonymously. A brief description of the books' contents or comments on why you liked them would be useful.

I'm also always open to full-length guest reviews or recommendations for other published reviews that I might reprint. Please e-mail your contributions or recommendations.

Important news added February 20, 2008:

I received a review copy of the important new National Academies Press book coverScience, Evolution, and Creationism and encourage every person involved in or concerned about science education in the United States to order a copy.

The list price is $12.95, but clicking the cover or the above link takes you to the sales page, where the price is $10.36.

You can also download it for free from the National Academies Press web site.

Some useful links and excerpts of the news release follow.

Download .pdf brochure about the book. This brochure is a very useful overview of the issues discussed in the book.

Read online. This also has links to buy the book from the National Academies Press, but the discount is better (and I'd appreciate the small commission for my effort in alerting you).

Excerpts of the news release:

Scientific Evidence Supporting Evolution Continues To Grow; Nonscientific Approaches Do Not Belong In Science Classrooms

WASHINGTON -- The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Institute of Medicine (IOM) today released SCIENCE, EVOLUTION, AND CREATIONISM, a book designed to give the public a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of the current scientific understanding of evolution and its importance in the science classroom. Recent advances in science and medicine, along with an abundance of observations and experiments over the past 150 years, have reinforced evolution's role as the central organizing principle of modern biology, said the committee that wrote the book.

"SCIENCE, EVOLUTION, AND CREATIONISM provides the public with coherent explanations and concrete examples of the science of evolution," said NAS President Ralph Cicerone. "The study of evolution remains one of the most active, robust, and useful fields in science."

"Understanding evolution is essential to identifying and treating disease," said Harvey Fineberg, president of IOM. "For example, the SARS virus evolved from an ancestor virus that was discovered by DNA sequencing. Learning about SARS' genetic similarities and mutations has helped scientists understand how the virus evolved. This kind of knowledge can help us anticipate and contain infections that emerge in the future."

...Despite the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution, opponents have repeatedly tried to introduce nonscientific views into public school science classes through the teaching of various forms of creationism or intelligent design. In 2005, a federal judge in Dover, Pennsylvania, concluded that the teaching of intelligent design is unconstitutional because it is based on religious conviction, not science (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District). NAS and IOM strongly maintain that only scientifically based explanations and evidence for the diversity of life should be included in public school science courses. "Teaching creationist ideas in science class confuses students about what constitutes science and what does not," the committee stated.

"As SCIENCE, EVOLUTION, AND CREATIONISM makes clear, the evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future," the book says.

I'm very pleased to say that my most recent review was published on the Health and Science page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. A shorter version just appeared in my hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I anticipate that it will be in at least one other newspaper.

I have rarely found a book with such a great combination of vivid prose and high-interest science as coverWhat Bugged the Dinosaurs: Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous by George Poinar, Jr., and Roberta Poinar, and I recommend it to you with enthusiasm.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the full review:
One hundred million years ago, a female sand fly settled on a sauropod for what turned out to be her final blood meal. Something startled the dinosaur, and the insect's dining was interrupted. She escaped the thrashing beast only to become trapped in the sticky resinous sap of an araucarian tree.

Her "straining, desperate movements attracted the attention of a small predator patrolling the bark, who nipped open a minuscule hole in the end of her abdomen, deftly pulled out the reproductive system, and devoured the protein-rich eggs. Some of the gut contents of the entrapped insect spilled out onto the fresh resin as life ebbed away. She lay on one side in a drop of spilled blood, disemboweled, head and mouthparts clearly visible, wings outstretched.... An additional resin flow entombed the small female fly" in what we now call Burmese amber.

Of the many large and small dramas of Cretaceous life that Oregon State University Zoology Professor George Poinar, Jr., and retired research scientist Roberta Poinar vividly recount in What Bugged the Dinosaurs?, this one is the most significant. For when the Poinars studied that remarkably well-preserved ancient event in their laboratory, they discovered that the dinosaur blood was infected with a pathogenic microorganism.

Had the fly survived to bite another beast, it might well have passed the disease along, much as insect-borne diseases are spread from animal to animal today. That is not the only way insects bugged dinosaurs. They often competed for the same food or were irritating biters, stingers, and parasites.

Of course, they had their beneficial traits as well. They were pollinators of plants that fed herbivorous dinosaurs. They were food for carnivorous dinosaurs or the animals on which they fed. They were the "Sanitary Engineers of the Cretaceous," playing a major role in the recycling the nutrients in dung and the vital chemicals in the bodies of dead animals and plants.

Also now online is my review of coverCensoring Science: Inside the Political Attack on Dr. James Hansen and the Truth of Global Warming by Mark Bowen. The book covers a lot of important information, but I take the author to task for less than stellar story-telling and a less careful treatment of the science than I like. I still recommend buying it at, where you will find generally positive reader reviews.

Upcoming review possibilities:


coverBeyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future by Jeffrey Bennett.


coverYear Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge edited by Damien Brodrick.

coverDid Man Create God? Is Your Spiritual Brain at Peace with Your Thinking Brain? by David E. Comings, M.D.

coverApocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God by Amos Nur with Dawn Burgess.

Interesting book received too late to consider reviewing

coverThe Void by Frank Close. This reminds me of three other books reviewed on The Science Shelf: Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea and Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and the End of the Universe, both by Charles Seife, and The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K. C. Cole

A Spate of Books for C.S.I. and Criminal Minds Fans

I won't be reviewing these, but I know a lot of science readers are also fans of the television series C.S.I. (Crime Scene Investigation) and Criminal Minds. These links take you to the pages for the books, where you can learn more about them.

coverSerial Killers and Sadistic Murderers - Up Close and Personal by Jack Levin

coverSkeletons in the Closet: Stories from the County Morgue by Tobin T. Buhk and Stephen D. Cohle

coverBlood On The Table: The Greatest Cases of New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner by Colin Evans

The "If You Liked My Astrobiology" Department

I have been shamelessly promoting my new title for middle graders in Lerner's "Cool Science" series, coverAstrobiology, which has been published in classroom paperback edition for the very affordable price of $8.95. When I last checked, only the hardback edition was available on Click the cover image if you want to learn more about it or order the hardcover edition.

If the paperback alternative does not yet appear or if you want an autographed copy of either edition, e-mail me. I will gladly sign and sell to you for the retail price and not charge for shipping in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a book taking a different approach to similar material for a slightly older audience has come across my desk, and I would be remiss not to mention it here. coverLife on Earth--and Beyond: An Astrobiologist's Quest by Pamela S. Turner. It follows astrobiologist Chris McKay as he explores one extreme environment after the other on Earth for life, anticipating an eventual human or robot exploration in similar locations on Mars.


Thank you to the growing number of people who are kind enough to buy some of the books that they discovered here through the Science Shelf links. They've even used the link on the Science Shelf homepage to enter and buy other books, like an unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, and other products including, most recently, a heating pad for arthritis.

I hope those make the buyers feel better physically and emotionally--no couch jumping necessary. But I'll never know unless they tell me. Amazon's very sensible policies mean that I never find out who is buying; I just find out what they have bought, how much they paid, and how much my commission amounts to.

At the current pace, monthly commisions cover the cost of the web address, webhosting, and enough to buy me a two-topping large pizza (no anchovies, please). I'll never expect commissions to cover the time I spend maintaining the archive of book reviews and sending out messages like this. That's a labor of book- and science-love, and your feedback (in terms of increasing numbers of clicks) tells me you appreciate it.

As always, happy science reading, and thanks in advance for your support!

Fred Bortz