Blowout in the Gulf
William R. Freudenburg and
For a century, America was the world’s
biggest producer — and user — of petroleum. Today, the country remains the
biggest user while supplying less than
7 percent of world demand. Although
this book is nominally about the 2010
BP oil spill, it’s really a primer on the oil
industry: where it started, the companies
and regulations it spawned, and how it
has seduced nations everywhere to think
and act as if they can’t live without it.
The authors sifted through mountains of news accounts, reports and
transcripts of hearings on the BP spill.
They’ve woven statistics, quotes and
observations into a riveting account
of the accident, as well as the track
record of the principal parties and the
largely unfettered environment in which
they were allowed to operate. Taken
together, the evidence suggests that the
April 20 blowout — or one like it — was
just waiting to happen.
But that’s just a teaser, really. Two-
thirds of the text focuses elsewhere — on
Thomas D. Seeley
Some smart aleck is going to pick up
Honeybee Democracy, an account of
decision making among bees, and
snicker that the book should be titled
Honeybee Monarchy. After all, everybody knows that a beehive has a queen.
Yes there’s a queen, but Seeley, a
Cornell entomologist, writes that one of
the biggest misconceptions about how
bee colonies work is
that queens direct
colony doings. Actu-
ally she’s not a Royal
Decider, as he puts
it, but a Royal Ovi-
positer, laying 1,500
eggs or so on a summer day while leaving the rest of colony affairs to the group.
Seeley describes a colony as a
smoothly functioning group that makes
life-or-death decisions rather democratically. Bees’ methods work so well,
the perpetual cycles of boom and bust
that have defined the birth and ascendancy of the oil industry, and especially
that component of it that extracts crude
through offshore drilling.
nurtured on the
notion that oil is a
it’s really quite finite,
Gramling point out.
And it is being mined so rapidly that
there simply isn’t enough to fuel the
globe at current rates for much longer.
Freudenburg, an environmental
scientist, died shortly after this book
was published, and it encapsulates his
career-long effort to use environmental
science in society’s service: to understand and, most important, to prevent
man-made disasters. Indeed, he and
Gramling argue that Ben Franklin’s
adage “a penny saved is a penny earned”
should apply “thousands of times over
for a barrel of oil.” — Janet Raloff
MIT Press, 2010, 254 p., $18.95.
he says, that evolution has favored some
of the same features elsewhere, as in
behavior among human brain cells.
To illustrate bee decision making,
Seeley details how swarms choose a new
home. Seeley presents his material with
charm, and the bees’ system of house-hunting becomes surprising and awe-inspiring. The bees swarm out of their
old home before looking for a new one.
As thousands of now-homeless honeybees dangle in a beardlike mass from
a branch, scouts scour the countryside.
They report back, through elaborate
dances, and debate possible locations.
Evolution has honed bees to balance
the need for accuracy and individual
points of view from scouts against
the need for speed. The process so
impressed Seeley, he says, that when he
became chair of his department, he instituted measures to make faculty meetings a bit more beelike. — Susan Milius
Moon: A Brief History
Revisit the wonders
of Earth’s next-door
neighbor with this
cultural and scientific
exploration. Yale Univ.
Press, 2010, 290 p., $25.
The Skull Collectors
A historian looks back
at skull collecting in
America and exam-
ines how cranial size
was used to justify
racism. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010,
270 p., $27.50.
A Professor, a
President, and a
Cathryn J. Prince
How a meteorite that
struck Weston, Conn.,
in 1807 spurred a Yale
chemist to help build the foundations
of American scientific research.
Prometheus, 2010, 254 p., $26.
Leon M. Lederman
and Christopher T. Hill
Two physicists convey
the enigmas of the
quantum world in clear and compel-
ling prose. Prometheus, 2011,
338 p., $28.
Soap, Science, and
David Dunmur and
Learn how liquid crys-
tals were discovered
and how they eventu-
ally became the standard in display
technology. Oxford Univ. Press, 2010,
345 p., $53.95.
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