An Orchard Invisible: A Natural
History of Seeds
A single coco-de-mer, the largest
known seed, can weigh 23 kilograms,
as much as an airline passenger’s checked
luggage, writes Jonathan Silvertown, an
ecologist at the Open University in
Milton Keynes, England.
What drove the coco-de-mer palm
to such extreme nuttiness is just one
of the evolutionary puzzles Silvertown
discusses in An Orchard Invisible. The
book tours the marvels of plant seeds,
standing out among others on the subject by emphasizing how the weird and
the wonderful have evolved.
Since the coco-de-mer can’t float,
extra provisions for sustaining the
plant embryo during dispersal by sea
didn’t drive the gigantism. Instead,
an ancient climate shift ignited a fight
for height, Silvertown explains. Most
other tree trunks grow out as they grow
up, ensuring stability. But palms can’t
thicken their trunks throughout life.
To soar as a structurally sound adult, a
palm has to thicken as a youth, and big-
Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not
Your Brain, and Other Lessons from
the Biology of Consciousness
Alva Noë wants to knock the brain
off its scientific pedestal, where
it reigns as maestro of mind and king
of consciousness. In his new book,
the University of California, Berkeley
philosopher offers an often thought-
provoking explanation of why neurosci-
entists won’t make
headway in understanding conscious
experience until they
drop their brain-centric attitudes.
Noë rejects the traditional assumption
depends on the brain compiling sensory
information to create its own internal
pictures of the world — pictures bearing a tenuous relationship with what’s
ger well-provisioned seeds offered a
fast start in the race for fat trunks.
Silvertown covers not only seeds but
also the quirky plant sex that makes
them. Anyone inclined to dismiss wind
pollination as the boring alternative
to bees and flowers needs to read his
account of ginkgo tree procreation. It
starts with female parts dangling a liq-
uid droplet from a
pore and then drawing the drop back,
along with pollen
snagged from the
breeze. The male
structures eventually produce sperm
with thousands of
whipping hairs to power them forward.
Plants can make seeds without sex,
so Silvertown reviews the pros and
cons of sexuality. Asexuality has its success stories: Japanese knotweed plants
in Britain, continental Europe and the
United States are all clones of a single
plant. But overall, Silvertown concludes, sex is winning. — Susan Milius
Univ. of Chicago, 2009, 224 p., $25.
really out there. Consciousness doesn’t
happen in the brain, like digestion happens in the gut, Noë argues. The brain
is an equal player with the body and the
environment. Interactions among all
three allow an individual to understand
the world and accomplish goals — from
making a cup of coffee to designing a
business plan for a coffee company.
This is not a new idea. Noë notes that
fields such as philosophy, artificial intelligence and developmental psychology
already take seriously the possibility
that consciousness depends on actions
taken and goals sought in context.
Marshaling recent findings, Noë outlines why his approach best explains
how vision works, how people learn to
speak native languages and why individuals experience various illusions of self-perception. His book may not change
many neuroscientists’ minds, but it will
likely get them thinking. — Bruce Bo wer
Why Sh*t Happens:
The Science of a
Really Bad Day
Peter J. Bentley
Science explains life’s
daily mishaps and
offers ways to fight back. Rodale,
2009, 308 p., $16.95.
Raymond M. Smullyan
Analogies and a fantasy setting bridge the
author’s earlier puzzle
books and technical
writings to teach readers about logic.
AK Peters, 2009, 327 p., $49.
in an Age of Global
Anthony D. Barnosky
could irrevocably alter
creatures and their
habitats, great and small. Shearwater,
2009, 288 p., $26.95.
Birth Day: A
the Science, the
History, and the
Wonder of Childbirth
What is known — and
what isn’t known—about the first
day of a child’s life. Ballantine Books,
2009, 370 p., $25.
The Unwell Brain:
F. Scott Kraly
and behavior have
chemical roots. W. W. Norton & Co.,
2009, 224 p., $18.95.
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