Books et al.SB&F Prizes for Excellence in Science Books

Best books for curious kids

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Science  08 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6368, pp. 1244-1250
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4308
ILLUSTRATION: STEVE SCOTT

How does the Moon's influence on Earth's wobble affect the weather? Which animal earns the title of the world's deadliest? Can the Arctic undergo a drought? Even adults may struggle to articulate the answers to these seemingly simple questions. Fear not: This year's finalists for the Science Books and Films (SB&F) Prizes for Excellence in Science Books have you covered. Sponsored by Subaru and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science), this competition celebrates books that promote science literacy among children and young adults and encourages the publication of high-quality science books for young readers. Winners in each category will be announced at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, in February 2018. Until then, read on for reviews of the finalists written by the staff of the Science family of journals, with help from a few friends.

Children's Science Picture Book

My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis

Reviewed by Jennifer Sills

In Paul Meisel's My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis, a praying mantis describes her life through a series of succinct journal entries. “I was born today!” she writes on 17 May. As P. Mantis grows from nymph to adult, she eats aphids, catches grasshoppers and bees with her speedy arms and sharp teeth, and uses camouflage to avoid predators such as bats, birds, and spiders. “Unlike other insects,” she explains on 27 July, “I can turn my head to see what's behind me. Hello!” As she grows, she sheds her skin several times, admitting on 2 August, “I felt a little naked until my new skin hardened.” Colorful illustrations depict P. Mantis in her natural environment—inspired by the author's Connecticut backyard—surrounded by trees, flowers, animals, and other insects. Although some startling facts are candidly addressed (2 June: “I ate one of my brothers. Okay, maybe two”), the narrator omits a few details about the mantis's life cycle: She lays eggs with no mention of the praying mantis's often gory mating rituals, and her final entry on 17 October signs off with a “long nap.” Inside the front and back covers, the reader will find accessible descriptions of the praying mantis's life cycle and habitat to supplement P. Mantis's experiences.

My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis, Paul Meisel, Holiday House, 2017. 40 pp.

Robins!

Reviewed by Julia Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink

Every year, many millions of American robins migrate from the southern United States and Mexico to the northern U.S. and Canada to breed. The males travel first, covering hundreds of miles to find and defend a suitable breeding place until the females arrive. Robins! tells the story of one robin couple and their offspring over the course of the breeding season. Suitable for children between about 5 and 8 years of age, it provides an accessible and engaging account of the robin family's life.

My 7-year-old son particularly liked the conversation of two young robins who comment on the events in speech bubbles. Young readers can follow the story by reading these speech bubbles, either on their own or while listening to the story as it is read to them.

The story is unflinching in its portrayal of some of the dangers that the robins encounter: To my son's shock and indignation, a squirrel steals and eats one of the eggs. Later, the young robins manage to escape from a cat, but one of them is not so lucky when a hawk hunts for food for its own young.

The pictures are beautifully drawn, with details that will help children relate to the story. For example, the robins build their nest on a hoe in a garden shed. For the nest to be protected, the people living at the house must take care not to move the hoe. In another picture, children play in the distance, helping young readers to connect the events to their own lives. A brief fact file at the end provides accessible details about robin biology for children interested in learning more.

Robins!: How They Grow Up, Eileen Christelow, Clarion Books, 2017. 48 pp.

Shark Lady

Reviewed by Catherine Wolner

The sight of a dorsal fin slicing through the water might strike fear into your heart, but Eugenie Clark saw things differently. Shark Lady tells the story of this pioneering marine biologist who took assumptions about sharks—and about whether women belong in science—and blew them out of the water.

Captivated by sharks since a childhood aquarium visit in 1931, Clark set out to prove that they were not “mindless monsters” to be feared and reviled, but fascinating, intelligent, even trainable creatures worthy of study and conservation. The book follows the lifelong passion that kept her diving—first into the shallows as a kid at the beach, then into books as a student, and ultimately into the open ocean as a researcher, where she spotted sharks resting in caves (busting the popular idea that they must keep moving to stay alive) and hitched a ride on the back of a whale shark, among other discoveries and adventures.

The author, herself a zoologist, skillfully delivers this biography for a young audience, and the sea creatures that Clark meets along the way are illustrated with a peculiar mixture of charm and fidelity that makes it easy to imagine kids turning to them again and again and begging for a trip to the aquarium. Clark's perseverance in the face of shark skeptics and those who doubted her brains and bravery offers an encouraging message about grit, courage, and zeal, while age-appropriately conveying the extra burden that women carry of proving themselves in male-dominated spheres. Clark's remarkable life, laid out in more detail in a timeline at the end of the book, might spark the hunger for discovery in a new generation.

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist, Jess Keating, Illustrated by Marta Álvarez Miguéns, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017. 48 pp.

If You Were the Moon

Reviewed by Jeffrey Mervis

The Moon is a very busy celestial body, and Earthlings are lucky that it is so active. That's the delightful premise of a new picture book by Laura Purdie Salas and Jaime Kim. If You Were the Moon is aimed at elementary school-aged children, but an ingenious two-layered narrative also makes it accessible for younger children.

Each two-page spread is dominated by one of Kim's colorful pictures showing the Moon in various guises—a ballerina spinning around Earth, a flashlight to lead newly hatched turtles to the sea, a helpless target for meteorites zipping through space. But in addition to that simple story line, Salas has added a meaty paragraph on the science behind the image. The ballerina, for example, helps explain how the Moon spins on its axis in step with its rotation around Earth, leaving one half always turned to us.

That structure allows the adult reader to tailor the book's message to the child's level of interest. The appealing images also add texture: A breaching whale in an ocean playing tug-of-war with the Moon may be more appealing to a 4-year-old than a heavy-duty explanation of tidal forces.

The book can stretch the adult mind as well. A picture of a smiling Moon extending long arms to embrace Earth, for instance, illustrates how the Moon's presence reduces how much Earth wobbles on its axis. That dampening prevents more extreme weather and bigger variations between winter and summer. Did you know that?

As a bedtime story, If You Were the Moon is a wonderful companion to the beloved Goodnight Moon. And unlike that classic, this new Moon should also help parents answer their child's inevitable questions about that shining orb in the sky.

If You Were the Moon, Laura Purdie Salas, Illustrated by Jaime Kim, Millbrook Press, 2017. 32 pp.

Beauty and the Beak

Reviewed by Valerie Thompson

Aided by a custom prosthetic beak, “Beauty” the bald eagle takes a drink of water.

PHOTO: GLENN HUSH © JANE VELTKAMP

In 2005, an emaciated eagle was discovered outside of a landfill in Alaska. She had been shot in the face, causing catastrophic damage to her upper beak. Such a grim story may seem a strange foundation on which to build a book for children, but the tale takes a happier turn when the raptor, nicknamed “Beauty,” is rescued and eventually outfitted with a 3D-printed prosthetic. In Beauty and the Beak, children's author Deborah Lee Rose and raptor biologist Jane Veltkamp team up to share the story of Beauty's recovery and the scientists and engineers who made it possible.

The book begins with a brief overview of the eagle's life before her injury, emphasizing all of the important ways a bird of prey's beak contributes to its well-being. Here, the authors tell stories from Beauty's perspective. This works well when, for example, they invite us to picture her first flight (“[A] sudden gust of wind lifted her into the air. For a moment, she was flying!”). But sensitive readers may become distressed when her violent injury is similarly described (“The eagle's face burned. She couldn't see… It even hurt for her to breath.”).

The story then shifts to raptor biologist “Janie” (Jane Veltkamp) and mechanical engineer “Nate” (Nate Calvin), who—together with a team of dental professionals—create and implant the bird's nylon-based polymer beak. Up close photos and digital renderings complement the text, which offers a simple but informative description of the scanning, modeling, and manufacturing steps behind the creation of the prosthetic.

In an afterword, we learn that Beauty's real beak has since changed shape, meaning that the original prosthetic no longer fits. To a reader, this is slightly unsatisfying. But then again, real stories—even those with fairy tale-inspired titles—rarely end with a perfect “happily ever after.”

Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle, Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp, Persnickety Press, 2017. 40 pp.

Middle Grades Science Book

Eye of the Storm

Reviewed by Marc S. Lavine

Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma showed just how much destruction can arise when a category 4 or 5 storm makes landfall. But even a category 1 storm can be devastating, as hurricane Sandy showed us 5 years ago when the tropical storm combined with a winter storm, and the raging flood waters were exacerbated by the high tides caused by a full Moon.

In contrast to a weather forecast, trying to predict the formation and path of a hurricane involves weather systems that are much larger and more energetic and can bring death and destruction over hundreds of miles. Further, an incorrect forecast that causes people to evacuate for “no good reason” may lead them to ignore future warnings.

In Eye of the Storm, Amy Cherrix brings together the recent history, science, and politics of hurricanes as a framework for presenting studies undertaken by NASA to study the formation and development of tropical cyclones, the general term used for any hurricane, typhoon, cyclone, tropical storm, or tropical depression.

Over the course of three successive summers, scientists and pilots at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility had the chance to use a repurposed Air Force Global Hawk drone to study potential hurricanes up close. The focus of the narrative is the summer of 2014 and the last remaining chances to try to study the origins of a tropical storm and its potential growth into a hurricane. Cherrix profiles the pilots and scientists who worked on or supported the mission, as well as the tools that were custom built to study the heart of a storm, to measure temperature, pressure, wind velocity, and the chemical profile of particles trapped in the wind.

There is a whirlwind of information in this book—perhaps too much at times—but whether your interest is in recent hurricanes or how we might come to predict future ones, there is a lot to be learned from the stories Cherrix tells.

Eye of the Storm: NASA, Drones, and the Race to Crack the Hurricane Code, Amy Cherrix, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017. 80 pp.

Voyager's Greatest Hits

Reviewed by Laura M. Zahn

The two Voyager spacecraft, each the size of a small car, were initially meant to explore the two largest planets in our solar system: Jupiter and Saturn. But their trajectories were later strategically arranged to take advantage of a rare alignment of the planets—not expected to occur for another 176 years—to use gravity to assist their propulsion to the far reaches of, and eventually out of, the solar system.

Voyager's Greatest Hits goes over the basics of these two spacecraft and their travels. The first half of the book details the planning of this journey and follows the explorations of Jupiter and Saturn. Providing some history of our understanding of the inner gas giants before Voyager 1 and 2's 1979 arrivals, the book puts into context how much was learned from these relatively brief sprints by each planet and their moons.

The second half of the book illuminates exploration of the far reaches of our solar system. Specifically, it describes what was learned by Voyager 2's exploration of Neptune and Uranus and the signals relayed back to Earth as the two spacecraft, on different paths, entered interstellar space.

Whether we are alone in the universe remains to be seen, but the Voyagers have one potential last job: Each carries a golden record put together to describe Earth. Beyond our understanding of the space we occupy, it may be that one or both of the Voyager spacecraft will pass on information to others out there. This book provides the basics of the trips and includes web references at the end to help launch an appreciation of planetary and space science.

Voyager's Greatest Hits: The Epic Trek to Interstellar Space, Alexandra Siy, Charlesbridge, 2017. 80 pp.

Inside Your Insides

Reviewed by Dorie Chevlen

Inside Your Insides highlights the unique way our diet interacts with our gut microbiomes.

PHOTO: SELECTION FROM INSIDE YOUR INSIDES BY CLAIRE EAMER AND ILLUSTRATED BY MARIE-ÈVE TREMBLAY REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF KIDS CAN PRESS LTD., TORONTO. TEXT COPYRIGHT © 2016 CLAIRE EAMER. ILLUSTRATIONS COPYRIGHT © 2016 MARIE-ÈVE TREMBLAY

The human microbiome is complicated stuff: Researchers are still struggling to understand the trillions of microbes that call our bodies home—how we acquire them and how they affect everything from our digestion to our mood. It's the subject of Ph.D. work and medical research, but in this light-hearted picture book, it also becomes whimsical learning for 8- to 12-year-olds. Using simple language (with sporadic pronunciation guides for potentially unfamiliar terms), the book presents the most current science on the unseen hitchhikers living all over and inside our bodies. Colorful, cartoony illustrations help break up the material, and sidebars with “Did you Know?” fun facts and microbe-themed jokes further lighten the educational load. (Some of the jokes land better than others: “How does a microbe call home? Using its cell phone” will probably elicit more eyerolls than laughs, even from the youngest readers.) Of course, any discussion about the human microbiome will inevitably involve poop, and the book doesn't fail to deliver on that favorite childhood subject either: Readers will be especially delighted (and grossed out) by a quick section on the potential health benefits of fecal transplants. The microbiome is a difficult subject, but thanks to careful wording, microbe cartoons, and plenty of sidebar elements, in this book it becomes child's play.

Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the Microbes That Call You Home, Claire Eamer, Illustrated by Marie-Ève Tremblay, Kids Can Press, 2016. 36 pp.

To Burp or Not to Burp

Reviewed by Adrian Cho

How do astronauts poop and pee? According to Dave Williams, a Canadian physician who flew on two Space Shuttle missions and made three spacewalks from the International Space Station, that's the question people most often ask astronauts. In To Burp or Not to Burp: A Guide to Your Body in Space, he and coauthor Loredana Cunti provide the answer. Suction is key.

Illustrated with playful cartoons and photos from the space station, To Burp focuses on bodily functions in weightlessness. In one- and two-paragraph boxes, the book concisely addresses issues such as showering, brushing your teeth, and burping in space (don't try because you might vomit). It should appeal to children ranging from later elementary school through early middle school.

Most admirably, Williams and Cunti speak to their young readers with respect and candor, avoiding cutesy euphemism. “Farting is a fact of life,” they write, “so if you've really got to do it on board, just be sure to hang out by one of the filters so the fan can deal with it.”

Instead of moving from topic to topic, Williams and Cunti might have spun a narrative thread by, say, walking the reader through a day on the space station. And they might have begun the book by describing Williams's space experience instead of relegating that information to the back cover. Such quibbles aside, any child who has mused about being an astronaut should enjoy this book. How cool is it that in space you're supposed to pick your nose?

To Burp or Not to Burp: A Guide to Your Body in Space, Dave Williams and Loredana Cunti, Illustrated by Theo Krynauw, Annick Press, 2016. 56 pp.

Animals by the Numbers

Reviewed by Marc S. Lavine

How does a human compare in size to a grizzly bear, colossal squid, or blue whale? Which animals have the longest tongues and how do they compare to their body sizes? These are just some of the questions Steve Jenkins answers in Animals by the Numbers. Both simple and detailed illustrations of the animals are combined with graphs, symbols, and decision trees to bring a range of numbers and comparisons into an accessible form. Topics range from animal size and shape to populations to physical abilities such as running or jumping speed to body features and life spans. Depending on the reader's geography, he or she may find it surprising to see which animals are the deadliest to humans. Although snake and dog bites may make the local news, it is disease-carrying mosquitoes that still present the biggest global challenge. Survival at extremes of altitude and temperature provides some surprising examples of robust animals, with the tardigrade, or “water bear,” being the true champ with its ability to survive in outer space. This isn't just a book about animals; it is also about ways to present data and meaningful comparisons, and kudos to Jenkins for his skills in this area. Overall this isn't a book to read but rather to browse. In each example, you are bound to learn something new.

Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics, Steve Jenkins, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016. 48 pp.

Hands-On Science Book

This Book Stinks!

Reviewed by Michael A. Funk

This Book Stinks! encourages young readers to reporpose unwanted items in creative ways.

PHOTO: MICHAEL WHEATLEY/ALL CANADA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

Did you know about one-sixth of garbage collected in the United States is burned? Or that you can recycle yoga mats into flip-flops? This Book Stinks! will fill you in on all the dirty details of what happens to the things we decide to toss. Fortunately, this book takes an expansive view of the definition of “garbage,” with chapters dedicated to food waste and pollution. And not all the facts are depressing: The U.S. now reuses or recycles about one-third of its waste, and portions of the book are dedicated to explaining how recycling can be fun and profitable.

While the title suggests an ick-themed romp through the dumpster, the book does not dwell too heavily on disgust. Instead, it tries to surprise young readers with innovative solutions that countries and cities around the world have created to deal with the daily waste stream of their citizens. Some of the numbers early on in the book are difficult to get your head around, despite comparisons. Can you imagine, for example, 1000 elephants' worth of old space junk?

Vivid images are overlaid with bright colors and bold text. The smattering of cockroaches, worms, and flies are sure to delight some kids but might be off-putting to the bug-averse.

This book shines most in its call to engagement and creative thinking. The final chapter provides instructions for crafts and activities that should be enticing to kids and kids-at-heart. Some of the projects are major undertakings (setting up a worm farm for compost), but many are easy to incorporate into daily life and, with some enabling and encouragement from parents, should empower kids to change the way they and their families deal with trash.

This Book Stinks!: Gross Garbage, Rotten Rubbish, and the Science of Trash, Sarah Wassner Flynn, National Geographic Children's Books, 2017. 128 pp.

Try This! Extreme

Reviewed by Laura M. Zahn

Children are natural scientists, born wanting to explore the world around them. This book provides a range of activities most appropriate for children ages 10 to 15 years old, with some parental help and supervision, aimed at igniting kids' interest in different aspects of science. The experiments presented include various explorations of microbiology, entomology, and animal behavior, as well as some simple chemistry, engineering, and physics experiments. Each section gives detailed instructions and approximate times to completion as well as a walk-through of the actual project as performed by real kids. I found it especially realistic when experiments failed. Anyone who has worked in a lab will appreciate how the author walks readers through the scientific method and provides suggestions for further experiments and troubleshooting for the more problematic investigations. The book ends with a section specifically aimed at preparing for a science fair, including how to design an experiment, keep a notebook, and write up and present your results that will be quite beneficial for a budding researcher.

Try This! Extreme: 50 Fun & Safe Experiments for the Mad Scientist in You, Karen Romano Young, National Geographic Children's Books, 2017. 160 pp.

Droughts

Reviewed by Julia Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink

In Droughts, Melissa Stewart highlights potential consequences of low precipitation, including cracks in the soil, like those seen in this dried riverbed in Jiangxi, China.

PHOTO: IMAGINE CHINA/NEWSCOM

What is drought? Parched earth, empty reservoirs, and desert-like conditions may first spring to mind, but as Droughts makes clear to young readers, this picture may be misleading. A drought means that precipitation is lower than usual for a prolonged period of time, but this can occur in any part of the world—even the Arctic or a rain forest. The book explains the causes and effects of drought in simple and accessible terms, switching between more technical explanations and what they mean for humans and their environment. Along the way, the reader learns about the water cycle, how it can change with time, and why it is important for individuals and farmers to save water where possible.

My 7-year-old son particularly liked the simple experiments that, for example, illustrate how much water is liquid freshwater relative to frozen and ocean water and how clouds form. Pictures of children in drought-affected environments helped him to relate to the subject matter.

I felt, however, that leaving out any mention of climate change and its effects on precipitation, and hence droughts, was an unfortunate omission. Scientific evidence for increased drought risk under climate change is strong, and I felt it was a missed opportunity to convey this important message to young readers.

Droughts, Melissa Stewart, Illustrated by André Ceolin, HarperCollins, 2017. 40 pp.

Magnets Push, Magnets Pull

Reviewed by Brent Grocholski

Magnets may seem like little miracles, but as Magnets Push, Magnets Pull shows, there are scientific explanations for all of magnetism's extraordinary attributes. David Adler walks readers through the basics of magnetism with a set of hands-on experiments easy to do at home with simple magnets and a few household items. The demonstrations are easy to follow and reproduce, thanks to Anna Raff's exceptional and bright illustrations. The book starts by encouraging kids to see what types of objects stick to a permanent magnet. The invisible magnetic force is demonstrated by the interaction of magnets with paper clips and iron filings. Kids are encouraged to investigate how magnetic poles interact, not only between the north and south poles of the magnets but also between the static magnets and Earth. The fun doesn't stop there, as additional demonstrations allow readers to make paper clips magnetic by rubbing them with static magnets. Even more exciting is learning how to make an electromagnet using wire and batteries. Magnets Push, Magnets Pull shows readers that they don't need to be a scientist to understand how magnets work.

Magnets Push, Magnets Pull, David A. Adler, Illustrated by Anna Raff, Holiday House, 2017. 32 pp.

Young Adult Science Book

Caesar's Last Breath

Reviewed by Andrea Jenney

The word “gas” appropriately comes from the Greek word for chaos (khaos): Within these intangible substances are trillions of tiny particles flying around at hundreds of miles an hour, forcefully slamming into each other and ricocheting away in random directions. Yet, because gases are invisible to the naked eye, it is often easy to forget just how powerful and ubiquitous they are.

In Caesar's Last Breath, Sam Kean describes how gases have played a lead role in many chapters of Earth's history, from the beginning of the solar system to the current search for life on other planets. He interweaves scientific topics with tangential, but often humorous, stories about the people who helped to reveal important properties of gases. Who knew, for example, that Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who discovered the role that oxygen plays in combustion, once paid the modern-day equivalent of $280,000 for a portrait that included himself, his wife, and his chemistry equipment?

The book is split into three sections: the nuts and bolts of atmospheric composition, how gases have influenced humans, and finally how humans have influenced the atmosphere. Within the sections, each chapter focuses on a different gas or a set of gases. In one, Kean recounts the dangerous experiments by “chemical cowboys” whose insatiable desire to find compounds for bigger and better explosives in the 1800s led to lab accidents, innocent deaths, and a vain attempt to repair a maimed reputation (of which the Nobel Prize is a result). In another, he shares the history of how nitrous oxide once precariously wavered between the social classifications of medicine and party drug and describes its eventual role in slashing the suicide rate of hospital patients about to undergo surgery.

Despite the book's breadth—Kean covers more than 15 distinct topics—its stories are informative and well organized. He inarguably succeeds with his goal of “mak[ing] these invisible stories of gases visible.

Editor's Note: For a full-length review of Caesar's Last Breath, see “Science reads for the summer of '17,” Science 356, 6342 (2017).

Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, Sam Kean, Little, Brown and Company, 2017. 384 pp.

The reviewer is at the Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA. Email: andrea{at}atmos.colostate.edu

Darwin's Backyard

Reviewed by Christopher Kemp

At Down House in Kent, Charles Darwin is instructing his manservant Parslow to lower another dead pigeon into a foul-smelling pot. It is February 1856. Darwin is 47 years old. Endlessly curious, he has begun to suspect that the skeletons of different pigeon varieties will support his secretly held ideas about how species are related and have changed throughout history.

As James T. Costa details in the excellent Darwin's Backyard, Darwin found the evidence he was searching for in the pigeon bones. He found it elsewhere, too: in the complex pollination of orchids and the social behaviors of ants, in the morphology of barnacles and earthworms, and in the movements of carnivorous plants.

Whenever possible, Darwin crowd-sourced his data, enlisting the help of his children (he had ten, three of whom died in childhood), for example. Often, they were sent across the Kentish fields with specific work orders: “Collect a hundred Lythrum plants and bring them home” or “Track the routes of the bees that criss-cross the clover-studded meadows.”

Parslow the manservant helped, too, as did Darwin's long-suffering wife, Emma, who watched with dismay as he carpeted the hallway of Down House with paper covered in frog spawn. Catherine Thorley, the children's governess, assisted in the completion of a painstaking plant survey of nearby meadows. Schoolmaster Ebenezer Norman tabulated all of Darwin's data for him. The local vicar helped build beehives.

In Darwin's Backyard, the famous naturalist strides across every page—collecting barnacles from the frigid water of the Firth of Forth, watching spiderlings float from the rigging of the Beagle, and investigating the cross-pollination of foxgloves in Wales. Detailed do-it-yourself experiments appear at the end of each chapter, allowing the reader to follow in Darwin's footsteps, reproducing, for example, his seed-salting studies of 1855 or his earlier work on barnacle morphology.

With Darwin's Backyard, Costa has written an intimate and big-hearted book. In its pages, young readers will discover the complicated man behind the revolutionary theory.

Editor's Note: For a full-length review of Darwin's Backyard, see “Darwin, the crowd-sourcer,” Science 357, 6356 (2017).

Darwin's Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Change, James T. Costa, W. W. Norton, 2017. 461 pp.

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2017). Email: cjkemp{at}gmail.com

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

Reviewed by Yevgeniya Nusinovich, Solomon Ucko, and Hadassah Ucko

Anastasia Ivanova holds a Silver fox bred as part of an experiment to study domestication.

PHOTO: ITAR-TASS PHOTO AGENCY/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

How to Tame a Fox is the true story of a modern-day attempt to domesticate an animal. The experiment was the brainchild of Dmitry Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist who recruited Lyudmila Trut, one of the coauthors of this book, to help him tame wild foxes in the late 1950s in an attempt to replicate the evolution of wolves into dogs.

The scientists started their work under the shadow of Trofim Lysenko, an agrobiologist who rejected Mendelian genetics and fabricated data but who nonetheless won the trust of Joseph Stalin. With Stalin's help, Lysenko shut down genetics research in the Soviet Union between the 1930s and the 1950s. As a result, Belyaev's project, and the lives of the researchers, were initially at risk.

By hypothesizing that tamer foxes would breed more often than wild ones, and thus increase fur production, Belyaev and his team framed their research in terms of potential financial gains for the government, disguising their true aim: to answer fundamental questions about the underlying genetics of domestication. They separated an initial population of wild foxes into groups based on each fox's willingness to engage with humans and bred the friendliest foxes together. Within only six generations, a new group emerged that were eager to interact with humans—these foxes even began showing more “doglike” physical features (e.g., floppy ears and curly tails). The project continues today, as scientists use new tools to focus on the molecular genetics behind these changes.

This fascinating book sheds light on aspects of Soviet science and history that are little known in the Western world. Some passages are a little long-winded and tend toward hero worship, especially those that concern Belyaev, whom the authors clearly admire. However, it conveys the science and the political environment of the times accurately and convincingly throughout.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution, Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, University of Chicago Press, 2017. 240 pp.

Quakeland

Reviewed by Rick Murnane

The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that shook western Montana on 6 July 2017 is a reminder that earthquakes in the United States are not limited to the Pacific's “rim of fire.” In Kathryn Miles's book Quakeland, she begins by recounting a 1959 magnitude 7.5 earthquake that occurred in this same region. The Hebgen Lake earthquake, as it is known, produced the nation's largest recorded earthquake-induced rock slide—73 million metric tons—and caused at least 28 fatalities. Although tragic, the quake was neither the most costly nor the most deadly. But, as Miles points out, it forces us to confront the fact that while our knowledge of earthquake hazard has evolved, in many cases our infrastructure has not.

Quakeland offers a guided tour of seismic hazards throughout the United States. In addition to covering earthquake hazards in the Western states, Miles provides an accessible overview of midplate seismicity in regions such as New Madrid and New York City. She also discusses non-natural sources of seismicity produced by, among other activities, fracking and mining.

Importantly, Miles also describes how our built environment, including dams, bridges, levees, and buildings, can (or, in many cases, cannot) withstand earthquakes and their associated secondary hazards. The engineers and scientists she interviews acknowledge that improving our resilience is costly, but the fact remains that the consequences of not doing so are often far more costly.

Improved construction practices prompted by past disasters, as well as scientific and engineering advances, are on the rise. But, while more seismically active areas are acting to improve resilience, Miles makes it clear that other regions of the United States could benefit from similar actions. “We just have no consciousness towards earthquakes in the eastern United States,” geophysicist Charles Merguerian tells her at one point. “And that's a big mistake.”

Editor's Note: For a full-length review of Quakeland, see “American movers and shakers,” Science 357, 6351 (2017).

Quakeland: On the Road to America's Next Devastating Earthquake, Kathryn Miles, Dutton, 2017. 368 pp.

The reviewer is at NatCatRisk, LLC, Garrett Park, MD 20896, USA. Email: rickjmurnane{at}gmail.com

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