Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils

by Lydia Pyne
Viking

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“The stories of these seven fossils speak, in no small way, to the fragility of fame and the contingency of celebrity.”

What does it take to be a rock star in the world of fossils? Must the find be significant, lucky, or have the support of the scientific community? Reaching back four million years, historian and anthropologist Lydia Pyne plots man’s time on Earth through seven famous skeletons that take on a life of their own and reveal more truth about humanity than what is contained within their bones.

Beginning in 1908 with The Old Man of La Chapelle, a seminal million-year-old Neanderthal discovery is unearthed near a small French village. Pyne walks us through the scene of the crime, so to speak, which includes a remarkable find that like others was lucky to be located at all. This was the cusp of the great expansion of the sciences. Disciplines were forming, and dreams of splitting the atom took shape. While human fossils had been discovered prior, the Old Man or homo neanderthalensis and the ensuing research therein helped to frame the science for the next century.

We then visit the Piltdown Man. In 1915, amateur anthropologist Charles Dawson “discovered” and, then later with the help of more prominent experts, presented the so-called “missing link.” Was it the illusive and highly coveted bridge between man and ape? For four decades, experts debated its authenticity while simultaneously adoring it. This may have been in part a case of people wanting it to be true. Veiled in secrecy, it was eventually exposed as a clever assembly of man and ape fragments, fooling even the great Charles Darwin. One can only imagine the parlor wages lost, as well as the reputations of avid supporters. Still, as the author documents, the Piltdown Man’s ascent to notoriety remains, albeit one of a grand hoax. Pyne shows that stumbles in science are often a combination of hubris, passion, and a present lack of analytical tools and skills. Every discovery must be built from the ground up, or it cannot be placed in the pantheon.

At the end of this chain of seven renown dead ancestors, Pyne discusses Karab, and it is the climatic story line. Discovered by a nine-year-old in South Africa while exploring his father’s dig site, it rose as the most significant find of our young century. This two-million-year-old partial skeleton is still under research. Australopithecus sediba is believed to fill in an evolutionary step of modern man and helps to fuel the greater debate until the next rock star find.

Trough Payne’s insightful narrative, the scientists of this realm and their personalities, as well as their friends and enemies, play a major role in many of the fossils’ fate. Most of the bones were unearthed in the pre-Internet days—a time of missives and well-honed connections to the anthropological community and the wealth that supported it. Some key skeletons were lost, remaining only in records. Yet as the letters, drawings, and publications cross the seas and academic halls, the author shows us that a skeleton’s discovery can be just as important as the debate it inspires and the resulting redirection of scientific thinking.

Some believe the overriding journey of science has been to explain God—to either explain Him away or to discover His truth. Regardless of your personal bent, the understanding of man’s emergence through time is at the very least vital to our understanding of the future. Our ancestors or the man-like cousins, whichever you prefer, went extinct by either circumstance or fundamental flaws, but they paved a path toward our existence today. One aspect is clear: Humans will either adapt or suffer a similar fate.

The book is at times a heavy read for the layman, but Pyne makes the effort to engage and enlighten by humanizing the subject matter. While this is not a new movement in nonfiction narrative, it is an increasingly prevalent mode for the scientific discussion of complex issues, and it appears to be an increasingly present tool of scientific women who execute it with aplomb, saliency, and passion. Place Pyne in that category. As our understanding races even further ahead of the common man’s grasp, Pyne keeps us in touch with both the people and facts of discovery within a lasting read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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The Book

by Julius Freedman
Old Stone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both over and secret.”

It’s been a decade since an art book has taken the grand prize for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, but this beauty kept rising to the top of our judges’ scoring cards. Have you ever seen a book after it becomes wet and dries? It screams, with a puffed chest of curling pages like the arms of a roiling sea monster. Julius Freedman shows us this and more, as he takes on the book as both physical and symbolic object. In a sequence of building images, The Book begins with a book as art in its purest form—its complex leather bindings, the embedded tabs of a dictionary, the pages of sophisticated rag or weave. Then books begin to take flight, with pages misshapen, eventually cracking and splitting from their spines, the print itself escaping, until we enter the realm of collage, yet always tethered to the concept of a book itself.

Is a book a mere extension of our memories, or does it go deeper than its byproduct overlap with our brains? If Gabriel Garcia Marquez created a book to fit his prose, it might result in one of Freedman’s constructions. The organization, as well as thoughtful commentary by Pico Iyer and Jill Gage, strike the right balance with the art presentation. Unique, whimsy, thought-provoking, this beautiful coffee table edition is worthy of any collection. but it is so much more. It envelopes the very concept of the book itself. Bravo.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

by Janna Levin
Knopf

“We see evidence of black holes destroying neighboring stars. We see evidence of super black holes in centers of galaxies… But we have never really seen a black hole, which only adds to the thrill of the prospect of hearing them.”

Astronauts returning on the space shuttle once told this former satellite designer and space program physicist: “You have no idea how much gravity is pulling down on all of us.” Home from the sheer joy of weightlessness in space, the dynamics of gravity were suddenly made real, pulling their shoulders and compressing their spines closer to Earth. It was a reminder of one of the universe’s illusive mysteries—gravity. We can measure and explain it, but we cannot see or hear it… yet. Physicist and writer Janna Levin takes us on the journey to detect, listen for, gravitational waves as the byproduct of a gigantic collision between black holes.

In simple terms, black holes form an incredibly dense mass. For scientists, this is where the fun begins. Since mass is an essential component of gravity, the extreme density of black holes will crush atoms and even bend light under its own weight. Yes, light has weight, and therefore one cannot really see a black hole, because light becomes trapped inside of it.

Decades ago, the movie Black Hole depicted a spacecraft passing through a black hole. This is science-fantasy. Anything with mass in close proximity to a black hole will not pass through it. Instead, the atoms of the spacecraft and the crew inside will become so densely packed that the result will no longer be visible to the naked eye, not to mention eliminating the viability of the spacecraft and its occupants. A black hole generates pressure of astronomical proportions. In a world of unnecessary hyperbole, it’s literally appropriate to apply the description “astronomical proportions” to a black hole.

For the purposes of Levin’s book, as two of these monster black holes draw near, anomalies in gravity will create waves that ring through space, but by the time they reach the Earth, they will be so slight that they will not be felt or heard by even the knowing. So what device will be needed to detect this phenomenon? By the mid-twentieth century, planning for and construction of full scale gravitational wave listening devices began on several international fronts. The devices needed to be big. The largest, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), is run by Caltech and spans four square kilometers at two separate locations. Within its vacuum environment, LIGO waits for disturbances in a reflected laser beam as a means of sensing and measuring the dragon itself—gravity in the form of waves. It’s an enormous undertaking of scope, time, and funding.

With crisp storytelling, Levin tracks the creators of LIGO as it moves from thought to reality. Decades in the making, the success of this device is yet to be seen and, as some might say, hardly the point. It is another step in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. The geniuses of science will continue to tweak their experiments, conjure new frontiers to explore, and draw us closer to understanding. The field of scientists pursuing gravitational wave detection come from all corners of the world, and they are uplifted and hindered by their personalities. Humanity is the factor in the equation that’s impossible to measure. Beyond anticipated brilliance, we find professional paranoia, backbiting, and of course politics. However, the work proceeds with the relentless dedication of a monk, the ambition of a CEO, and at times the ruthlessness of a pirate.

Levin sketches the story with impressive color, while providing Polaroid-like narratives of the people and places along this scientific frontier. She is the type of science writer who can explain complex topics in understandable terms. In relating the beloved wizards and weirdos of the laboratories, she has brought the high-minded down to earth. That feat is as rare as hearing gravity, and it reveals the genuine process of discovery. History often documents invention as brilliant strokes of insight wrought to fruition, but Levin shows its plodding pace that spans decades, as well as its inevitable wrong turns into blind alleys and heartbreaking miscues that destroy careers. No doubt, her students at Barnard love to sit in on each lecture—scientists and laymen alike. If we had a device that measured passion, Levin would ring the meters and sound the alarms.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Gaining Eric Hoffer Book Award Success

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“The Hoffer win confirmed for me that my book was what I’d hoped it would be.” Bill Mesce, A Cold and Distant Place

“I no longer need to try to attract the attention of traditional publishers. Ever since I received this award my book has received a lot more attention. In addition, my book sales have increased greatly. Thank you very much for the big boost. My Eric Hoffer Award success has been very rewarding.” Anthony Aquan-Assee, Second Life, Second Chance

“Our Eric Hoffer Book Award success in numbers: 9,100 Sold; 18 Reviews, 6,487,523 Reach; 120 Interviews, 305,476,330 Reach; 306 Mentions/Quotes, 440,303,385 Reach; 714 Op-Eds or Articles, 2,783,659,959 Reach; 1,575 Placements, 3,696,556,397 Reach.” – The Independent Institute discussing John C. Goodman, Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis

“Being an Eric Hoffer Finalist has helped me get invited to do more readings, receive honoraria, also sell books.” Joan Seliger Sidney, Body of Diminishing Motion

“The Eric Hoffer Award has added visibility, validation and ultimately readership. An immeasurable measure of pride accompanies the award.” Karen Krett, The Dark Side of Hope

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

More Eric Hoffer Book Award Success Stories

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“The award brought recognition locally and nationally, increasing interest and distribution that continues even after ten years since publishing.” Carolyn Singer, The Seasoned Gardener

“For one thing, I’m a college professor, and doing so well in the Eric Hoffer Award earned me a bigger than usual raise. For another, it boosted book sales.” Andy Solomon, The Fourth Demand

“Winning an honorable mention in the self-help category boosted my book sales. It also helped with credibility in requesting book interviews and book signings. The reward is highly respected in the literary field.” Michele Sfakianos, RN, BSN, Ace You Life

“Winning this award kicked sales of Mr. Touchdown up significantly and gained the book recognition in both bookstore and school sales. Even now, 10 years after winning the award, my book still sells a few dozen copies a quarter, more in the first quarter when it is picked up for Black History Month. I have passed 2,000 total sales, with very little promotion and am moving toward 2,500.” Lyda Phillips, Mr. Touchdown

“Once I included [my Hoffer Award honor] on my links, sales increased by 25%. I’m Finalist as well on the Royal Palm Literary Award through the Florida Writers Association, but fewer readers are aware of this award. Obviously Eric Hoffer continues to make an impact, and I believe I’m getting some good miles from his legacy. Thank you!” Vanessa Russell, Four of a Kind

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.

Eric Hoffer Book Award Success Stories

In 2007, The US Review of Books began publishing the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award. While the US Review is blind to the actual judging process, recently the Hoffer Award opened a window in The Authority of Book Awards. Years earlier, its chairman talked about the popular award’s humble beginnings in The Eric Hoffer Award: Righting the Wrongs.

While The US Review of Books boasts over 15,000 monthly subscribers, tens of thousands of additional readers visit its on-line publication to view the results of the Eric Hoffer Book Award each spring. Let’s take a look at how the excitement and the Hoffer Award in general has enhanced the success of the authors and publishers who registered their books with one of the most popular international competitions for small, academic, and independent books.

“Educators look for credibility, professionalism, and quality when choosing a novel to use in their classrooms, and they’ve been known to balk at choosing self-published titles. But that bright gold Montaigne Award sticker tells the world that my book is a well-written, compelling story middle-grade readers will never forget. As a result, my sales to school systems have sky-rocketed, and my calendar is chock full of classroom visits. Entering my book in the Eric Hoffer Awards was one of the best marketing decisions I could have made.” Holly Moulder, A Time to Be Brave

“In 2009, Barnes and Noble chose my debut historical novel to feature on its New Hardbacks shelves in stores nationwide. This was rare for an indie-published author at that time, and continues to be. It went on to win several more awards, and the Eric Hoffer Book Award committee’s belief in the book was instrumental in its success. Since receiving the Eric Hoffer recognition, I have published four more honored books… I’m very grateful to the Eric Hoffer Award committee for helping me to launch my publishing career.” Glen Craney, The Fire and the Light

“Recognition like the Hoffer award is a strong credibility builder when customers are searching through what has become a blizzard of information. The recognition was much appreciated.” Christine Kent, RN, Save Your Hips

“We’ve seen a 28% increase in sales since the Eric Hoffer Book Award announced the award. My publisher displays the Eric Hoffer Award gold seal on the third edition of my book. When I speak at writer’s seminars, many participants are familiar with the award and that helps sales.” Jamie Dodson, Flying Boats & Spies, A Nick Grant Adventure

“After my book’s Eric Hoffer Award I received more reviews on Amazon and GoodReads.” João Cerqueira, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

These success stories form the core reason why the Eric Award was created. The US Review of Books to be a sponsor of the Eric Hoffer Book Award.