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August 1997

The Staff Notes Monthly Summer Reading Guide

Summer reading doesn't have to be all potboilers, whodunits, and fluff (although each has its merits). It's possible to be entertained while learning something about the scientific enterprise or the earth system itself. If this is your season to catch up on reading, consider these releases from a variety of genres. Each is recommended by at least one of your colleagues, and two of them were written by NCAR scientists. Books available at the ML or FL libraries are so indicated at the end of each reference.

A novel approach to Antarctica

Carol Park (RAP) tells us that Antarctic Navigation, by Elizabeth Arthur (Alfred A. Knopf) is "one of the best books I've read recently. The story is a contemporary fictional account of an expedition to Antarctica led by a woman. It's based on facts from previous British Antarctic expeditions. Growing up in Colorado, the female character becomes fascinated with Scott's expedition of the early 1900s and sets out to recreate his journey nearly one hundred years later.

"It's a great story, especially for those curious about Antarctica and those who are fascinated with climbing expeditions and all the technology and logistics an expedition to 'The Ice' entails. More comprehensive than Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (with a coming-of-age tale woven into the expedition story), it is nonetheless similarly suspenseful, a page-turner that's difficult to put down (plan on some 3:00 a.m. reading sessions). Even though Antarctic Navigation is fiction, Arthur did her scientific homework well--there's even some vulcanology thrown in." [In 1990, before writing this novel, Arthur became the first participant in the Antarctic Artists & Writers program, sponsored by NSF.]

The Manhattan Project revisited

NCAR archivist Diane Rabson (Library and Information Services) found herself steered to three pieces of fiction set in an outpost far different from Antarctica. "A spring trip to Bandelier National Monument and several fascinating hours spent in the Los Alamos National Laboratories' Bradbury Science Museum inspired me this summer to read everything I could about the Manhattan Project. Since my uncle was a scientist at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in the 1950s, the Los Alamos visit also raised unexpected memories for me of vacations spent in that humid, beautiful spot near Knoxville, Tennessee. (Wonder if my mother saved those souvenir radioactive dimes.)

"I began by reading laboratory histories, biographies of Robert Oppenheimer, and memoirs of people who lived in Los Alamos from 1943 to 1945. Most recently I turned to fiction, curious how the inevitably complex story of the creation of the atomic bomb would be framed in three different novels.

"Beginning the World Again, by Roberta Silman (Viking) is a reliable account of the Manhattan Project told from the viewpoint of the young wife of an emigré scientist. While not all the voices sound authentic, the details of peoples' lives, work, and frustrations in this extraordinary military/scientific city are presented well. From the mystery shelves, Joseph Kanon's Los Alamos (Broadway Books) is a somewhat lurid, not entirely believable murder story with espionage at its core. The mystery Stallion Gate, by Martin Cruz Smith (Viking) is my favorite of the three. It focuses on Joe Peña, a Pueblo Indian who serves as Oppenheimer's driver. Refreshingly nonstereotypical, the book reveals the troubling undercurrent of racism in the forties, among many other themes.

Science is slim in these volumes, although technical explanations for problems like the design for the implosion device that sets off the 'gadget' are serviceable. Remarkably, the defining (and hackneyed) event of the project, the Trinity test, is well done in each book. Other themes--Oppenheimer's charisma and vulnerability as a 'security risk,' the scientists' misgivings after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war itself--are developed eloquently, not simplistically, and made me scurry back to read more histories."

Let them introduce you

If nonfiction is more your cup of tea, the NCAR libraries have some enticing options. We asked several members of the book selection committee (see sidebar) for their suggestions.

For a more scholarly yet introductory treatment of climate-change issues, Fred Clare (SCD) suggests Global Environmental Change: An Atmospheric Perspective, by John Horel and Jack Geisler (John Wiley & Sons), "an excellent, well-presented overview for the uninitiated." [Mesa, GE 149 .H67 1997] Still haven't gotten around to taking that atmospheric chemistry class? Bill Mankin (ACD) endorses Basic Physical Chemistry for the Atmospheric Sciences, by Peter Hobbs (Cambridge University Press), as "an excellent introduction for nonchemists to the relevant chemical principles, especially the effects of aerosols." [Mesa, QC 861.2 .H63 1995] Dick Valent calls A History of Scientific Computing (Addison-Wesley) "a gentle introduction to the topic, especially high-speed computing." [Foothills, QA 76.17 .H59 1990]

For a more offbeat nonfiction experience, Ralph Milliff (CGD) recommends A Civil Action, edited by Jonathan Harr and Marty Asher (Random House), "a compelling book written for the general public about the pollution of groundwater, written from a the perspective of the plaintiff's lawyer." And Charlie Knight (MMM) enjoyed Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich (Summit Books), "a research study on some very puzzling behavior of ravens that Heinrich observed in the Maine woods and how he figured out their behavior. The book has some super commentaries on scientific funding and all kinds of other nice stuff."

Display it again, Ed

Edward Tufte, the oracle of clear, concise graphical description, is back on the scene with a new book soon to reach the NCAR libraries. Gayl Gray (Library and Information Services) suspects it will be a hit among staff. Clearly, Tufte is after our own hearts. The cover of Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative (Graphics Press) features Tufte's own take on the familiar thunderstorm visualizations produced at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

The book follows Tufte's previous classics The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information. This volume, says the publisher, "is about pictures of verbs, the representation of mechanism and motion, process and dynamics, causes and effects, explanation and narrative." The phenomena at hand range from thunderstorms to the corrupted O-rings that sealed the fate of the space shuttle Challenger, a flaw Tufte maintains could have been spotted in time had better graphic tools been in the hands of NASA technicians. For a technical guidebook, Visual Explanations is a great summer read: it's light, bright, clean, and colorful. [Foothills, on order]

Two titles from ESIG authors

Face it: you won't be able to escape the El Niño/Southern Oscillation this winter, so why not prepare yourself now for those cocktail-party queries by finding out how 36 experts describe ENSO in their own words. You'll find that and much more in Currents of Change: El Niño's Impact on Climate and Society (Cambridge University Press), by ESIG senior scientist Mickey Glantz. Published last fall and now in its second printing, Currents of Change is a concise road map to scientific and social thought on the phenomenon. Mickey, along with numerous guest experts, considers the state of prediction research and the value of forecasts in preparing for widespread effects, from drought to malaria epidemics. There's even a crossword puzzle to test your knowledge of ENSO. [Foothills, GC 296.8 .E4 G53 1996]

How do you measure the worth of predicting ENSO--or anything else, for that matter? Another ESIG senior scientist, Rick Katz, teamed up with the late Allan Murphy (Oregon State University) to tackle that question. (Murphy died early this month after a battle with cancer.) The two researchers edited Economic Value of Weather and Climate Forecasts (Cambridge University Press). The just-released volume operates from the premise that weather information has value only as it affects human behavior. CGD's Joe Tribbia opens the book with a brief history of weather prediction and a discussion of predictability. Murphy delves into the many ways forecasts can be statistically verified. The book's editors conclude with prototype models for decision making in scenarios ranging from the simplest--whether or not to carry an umbrella--to the most complex and dynamic. [Foothills, on order]

Hot politics

ENSO could be fighting for front-page space this December with the United Nations climate negotiations scheduled for Kyoto, Japan. Award-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan has jumped into the climate-change fray with another book high on Gayl's A-list: The Heat Is On (Addison-Wesley). Gelbspan makes a painstaking case that the trillion-dollar coal and oil industries--"the biggest enterprise in human history"--sense a real threat to their existence and are fighting back through "a disinformation campaign as ferocious as any in history," abetted by a partisan Congress, industry-funded scientists, and reporters who pursue a misleading balance between skeptics and the scientific consensus.

Occasionally Gelbspan overstates the science, as when he takes it as a given that global warming is making hurricanes more fierce. Still, his analysis of the titanic power plays staged largely behind the public's back is a fascinating read. Gelbspan includes extended statements from four esteemed climate researchers, including Tom Wigley (CGD), along with shorter excerpts such as a two-page transcript of debate between Vice President Al Gore and Richard Lindzen (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). [Mesa, on order]

Finally, Carol Rasmussen (UCAR Communications) suggests two good reads that will take you back to a time when environmental struggles were more earthbound.

"I've recommended Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner (Penguin), to all my friends already, so I'm glad to get a chance to talk about it to someone new. It's a thorough, well-researched, well-written history of water use in the western United States. Reisner is clearly an advocate for conservation, but he doesn't need to preach: by simply documenting a century of greed, waste, environmental loss, and pork-barrel politics, he should make believers out of most readers. The book touches on all the fields needed to understand the subject, but it's the politics that I found most enthralling. The material on the rivalry between the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation is funny if you can forget that the agencies were using your (and your parents') tax dollars to outmaneuver each other in building large water projects of dubious value.

"The book was written around 1980, but in the paperback edition Reisner has updated his story with a gleam of hope, talking about the recent defeat of several large and questionable projects.

"For further insight on water-use policy in the early days of the West, try Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Penguin). Powell was a visionary whose ideas make a lot of sense to us now, though they were completely discounted in his day. He was also an adventurer in the grand style, and the story of his explorations of the Colorado River makes great hammock reading on a hot day." •BH

Gayl Gray. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Reading for fun and service: the NCAR Library Book Selection Committee:

"We have 47 people who participate," says Gayl Gray, speaking of the staff who volunteer to help the NCAR Library select the new books and journals acquired each year. Library staff sort through reams of promotional materials sent to the library and compile them by subject: chemistry, oceanography, fluid dynamics, computing, and so forth. Each stack is sent to a pair of people from the committee who have research interests related to the topic; the pair then makes recommendations. "We generally buy about two-thirds of what the committee suggests," says Gayl.

"Many libraries I'm familiar with don't routinely survey their users. We feel it's our staff who know what they need to be reading. The committee does a fabulous job, and they are so conscientious." Contact Gayl, gayl@ucar.edu, ext. 1180, if you'd like to help out. Gayl also urges all staff to bring personal reading discoveries to the library's attention whenever they seem appropriate for the NCAR collection. •BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu

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