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The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History Hardcover – October 26, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Rather like a natural history museum, this book contains arresting visuals and intriguing facts but has a vaguely musty air about it. Pick, a staff writer for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, traces the growth of the institution and the accretion of its millions of animal, vegetable, fossil and mineral specimens, asserting the continuing relevance of collecting and studying whole organisms in this age of molecular biology. (As Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson writes in the introduction, "Biology could not have advanced without the collections of museums like this one.") The bulk of the book is devoted to photographs of flora and fauna (or rather, their taxidermied or fossilized remains), accompanied by matter-of-fact commentary about their biology or provenance. Stuffed birds, pickled turtle embryos and tapeworms taken from the intestinal tracts of "upper-crust Bostonians" share space with a haunting fossil butterfly and an awesome plesiosaur skull. Other relics, though, fail to impress: Vladimir Nabokov's collection of butterfly genitalia, for instance, probably needs to be seen in person. The most interesting sections are those that delve into the science behind the specimens, such as the mini-essays on exotic animals and the physics of blue coloration, but these, too, are cursory and rare. 95 color photos not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A sampling from the 20 million specimens closeted at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the several dozen plants, animals, and minerals presented here were selected for their connections to interesting tales. The associations are sometimes either famous or bizarre, such as a woodpecker collected by Meriwether Lewis or a mastodon skeleton acquired by a Harvard professor hanged for the 1849 murder of a fellow don. Pick's choices, however, stem from the desire to depict her institution's two-century-long role in the history of biology. E. O. Wilson's introduction details the course of natural history from taxonomic description to molecular biology to evolutionary biology; Pick prefaces the main text with an essay detailing the fluctuations in the museum's reputation. Aided by Sloan's excellent photographs, Pick then groups specimens into extinct species, species discovered by museum scientists, or specimens studied by world-famous Harvard scientists such as Ernst Mayr and the late Stephen Jay Gould. This work is a beautiful showcase that will arrest the interest of every passing browser. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
I would classify the writing as poor. The author's selection of material and writing style is boring. The material in the first chapter, Natural History at Harvard, is repeated almost verbatim in the following chapters.
At places sentences are repeated, for example, what appears at the bottom of one column also appears at the top of the next column. There are also places where text appears to be missing. The author describes items in photographs that cannot be seen because the items are too small or poorly lit. In some photographs, a specimen will be shown in front of a drawing and both described. However, the drawing is out-of-focus and can't be clearly seen. One has to ask, where was the editor when the book was being prepared?
At points, the science is wrong or questionable, for example, the author says the sky appears blue "because blue light bounces off the tiny impurities in the atmosphere." The daytime sky is blue because the blue light in the spectrum for the sun is preferentially scattered from the molecules that are the atmosphere (mainly oxygen and nitrogen molecules). The impurities generally have nothing to do with it.
In summary -- this book is a lost opportunity to make some of the unique items in the Harvard museums available to a wider audience.