CSTA Classroom Science

Sit Back, Put Your Feet Up, Relax, and Read

By Deb Farkas

What better way to wrap up the 2019-20 edition of CCS, than to recommend a variety of books that you or your students might enjoy in the coming months. Here are five books representing environmental, physical and biological sciences.

Mark Arax’s book, The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), is an incredible tale of the use and misuse of land and water in California, a land of droughts and floods. Arax grew up in the Central Valley and has an intimate knowledge of how politics, agriculture, need, and greed have shaped the rural California we see today.  This is a tale of two rivers, of the California delta and its controversies, of grand water projects, of the colorful characters who are the “kings” and “queens” of agriculture, of the draining of aquifers and the subsidence of land. Arax takes a historical approach to the subject and puts a human face on the people who have shaped the land and policies of California where water and agriculture are concerned.  He details the development of the Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and the California Aqueduct. He relates stories of how farmers beg, borrow, and steal water to keep themselves in business, of how certain crops thrive and others crash depending on the amount and quality of water available. He compares and contrasts the challenges of farming in the foothills of the Sierras versus the Westlands. Arax relates conversations he has had with the wealthiest farm owners as well as the small farmers who are struggling to survive in California. The Dreamt Land is a lengthy book, over 500 pages, but is well worth the read.  Arax is an engaging storyteller on a subject relevant to all of us who rely on the food and resources dependent on California’s water.

If cosmology and astrophysics is your bag, Dan Hooper’s At the Edge of Time: Exploring the Mysteries of Our Universe’s First Seconds (Princeton University Press, 2019) is an intriguing “glimpse of the Big Bang — our universe’s first seconds and fractions of a second.” Hooper heads the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and is a professor at the University of Chicago.  In his book, Hooper traces the development of the Big Bang theory and our current understanding of the cosmos and our universe through the historical discoveries, theories, and hypotheses developed by Newton, Einstein, Hubble, Gamow and many, many more.  He explains and discusses matter and energy, dark matter and dark energy, the cosmic microwave background, cosmic inflation, the creation of subatomic particles, quantum mechanics, gravitational waves, and a great deal more in the context of a multitude of discoveries. Hooper’s underlying question throughout is: What happened at the very beginning of the Big Bang? Though there is no definite answer to this question, one is left with a multitude of other nagging questions: What is the substance of dark matter and how will we detect the particles from which it is made?  Is there a multiverse?  Will our universe infinitely expand?  What other particles may exist? This is definitely a book that will leave you musing on what might be the next big cosmological discovery.

A lovely book that explores the mystery of the octopus, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Paperback, Simon & Schuster, 2015) is a beautifully written story of discovery that takes place over several years. It is primarily an adventure into the realm of octopus behavior and consciousness. Montgomery asks the reader to consider how the behavior we witness, not just in octopuses, but in fish, sea turtles, sharks, and other animals is evidence of their intelligence and consciousness.  Her story starts at the New England Aquarium in Boston where she gets to know Athena the octopus. Athena “embraces” Montgomery’s  arms and eventually allows her to feed and stroke her head.  As she describes her interactions with these creatures, she discovers their intelligence, their ability to recognize individual people, and their incredible abilities to change color, squeeze through small spaces, solve puzzles, multitask, and more.  Throughout her journey of discovery, Scott Dowd and Bill Murphy, both aquarists, and Wilson Menashi, “octopus whisperer” and longtime volunteer, act as guides as she learns more and more about octopuses and their incredible abilities.   She establishes strong relationships with many aquarium volunteers, all of whom have knowledge and experience to share regarding their own interactions with octopuses.  She continues to visit the aquarium and over the years gets to know other octopuses - Octavia, Kali, and Karma - all with different temperaments and preferences.  Montgomery learns to SCUBA dive and gets to see and interact with octopuses in the wild.  If octopuses pique your curiosity, this book is an excellent read.

Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) is a memoir by Hope Jahren who traces her development and growth as a scientist from her childhood in rural Minnesota, where she spent much of her time in her father’s physics and earth science lab, to her current position as a cutting edge geobiologist/geochemist at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in Honolulu where she established the Stable Isotope Geobiology Laboratories. Jahren relates her own story in parallel with her passion for plants and their lives.  In the company of Bill, a somewhat eccentric undergraduate student whom she meets while in graduate school at UC Berkeley and who eventually becomes her lab and thought partner, friend, and confidante, Jahren moves on to teaching and research positions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, John Hopkins University, and finally the University of Hawai’i. Jahren writes of the obstacles and triumphs of her journey as a woman in science and as a person who struggles with periods of mania and depression. Though she goes through lots of ups and downs, she consistently perseveres and maintains her passion for science and discovery. She describes her experiences with Bill as they move from place to place, establish labs, study soils and plants, and come up with new ideas and hypotheses. The book is filled with sharp humor, passion, and keen observations of plant life, the scientific process, and the challenges of being a woman in science.

What Does Rain Smell Like? 100 Fascinating Questions on the Wild Ways of the Weather by Simon King and Clare Nasir (535 Books, 2019) is a fun and informative compendium of weather and how it works. The first few chapters address questions on how the sun and its influence make weather happen. Following chapters examine global weather as a whole, disturbances in the atmosphere and weather phenomena, the influences of space on weather, weather forecasting and attempts to control weather events, war and weather, and climate change.  Along with the title of the book, other interesting questions addressed by King and Nasir are: How does the shape of the jet stream affect the weather? Clouds or alien invasions? Why would you fly into a hurricane? What’s the weather like on other planets? Has the weather ever started a war? The book is written and published in the United Kingdom, so many of the examples of phenomena and weather behavior refer to Europe and Africa. It is, however, well-written and would be a great book for your classroom library.

Deb Farkas is retired from the San Francisco Unified School District and is a Life Member of CSTA. 



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