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Even that genius couldn't have foreseen books on disks

By Scott Kim
Apr 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:40 AM


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by Corey S. Powell

Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius


Robert Hooke's Micrographia

($30), and

Andreas Vesalius's De Humani Corporis Fabrica

($75), from the Octavo Editions CD-ROM series. Octavo Corporation, 1998. Octavo Corporation

"What was observed by us in the third place is the nature or matter of the Milky Way itself . . . for the Galaxy is nothing else than a congeries of innumerable stars distributed in clusters."

Galileo penned these words in 1610 in Sidereus Nuncius. The book's yellowed pages and impressionistic sketches transport the modern reader to the exhilarating moment when a few simple observations stripped away age-old illusions of our place in the universe. Until recently this thrill was reserved to a handful of academics. Now it is available to anyone with a decent personal computer.

A young publishing house called Octavo has freed Sidereus Nuncius and a dozen other rare books from their temperature-controlled sanctums and reissued them on durable CD-ROMs. These digital editions present near-perfect facsimiles, including views of the binding, along with historical commentary and, where necessary, English translations.

If anything, Galileo's accomplishments seem more extraordinary when displayed anachronistically on a computer screen. Through his primitive, 20-power telescope, he saw that the moon is not a perfect sphere but is pockmarked with craters. Jupiter is attended by four stars (actually giant satellites), proving conclusively that not everything revolves around Earth. And of course the Milky Way is not milky at all, but a dense spray of stars.

A digital reproduction lacks the smell and feel of the original, but it has advantages. The reader can search the text, copy passages into a word-processing program, or clip electronic images directly from the manuscript. Sidereus Nuncius, like all of Octavo's CD-ROMs, uses Adobe Acrobat to display the pages. The disk contains low-, medium-, and high-resolution files; the lowest is not searchable, while the highest loads slowly even on fairly powerful computers. On the other hand, the indexing system on the disks is fast and efficient, and the images look exquisite even at intermediate crispness.

Two other books in Octavo's series are also notable for their visual emphasis. Robert Hooke's Micrographia, published in 1665, documents his detailed microscopic investigations of everything from household tools to the anatomy of a flea. And Andreas Vesalius's 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica contains some of the most stunning depictions of the human body ever set on paper.

Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees.Lee Dugatkin. The Free Press, 1998, $25

Whether to compete or cooperate is a question most of us confront every day. Even small-minded creatures do the same, says biologist Lee Dugatkin, and what he describes are the principles of the calculus they perform. It is rather like a Miss Manners for the animal kingdom. There is the rule of blood: if you can't muscle up your own territory for a family, cooperate to foster the growth of close relatives--the genes you share with your siblings will end up spread around. There is the rule of back-scratching: keep track of favors and stop performing favors for those who don't return them. There is the all-together-now rule: some cooperative projects, like group hunting, offer better returns than solo efforts. And then there are altruistic behaviors among humans--adoption, rescue of a stranger, and military heroism--that are much harder to explain.

Most of Dugatkin's examples are entertaining, and many are bizarre. But it is the tension between his thesis and the facts he presents that keeps one reading. He is proposing that these rules of the game can do more than tell us about the behavior of animals; they can also help us understand and promote human cooperation.

Most intriguing is the discussion of how some groups reward cooperation better than others. The idea is that cooperation evolved in small hunter-gatherer groups eons ago because it gave better overall odds of survival for the group. Groups with cooperative members and high penalties for "cheating," the argument goes, were more likely to survive than groups in which every member was looking out only for number one. It's easy to see this "cooperate and prosper, compete and perish" idea mirrored in contemporary groups such as unions and gangs. What Dugatkin is saying doesn't seem much different from what sociologists have been saying about the formation of group identities. He's just locating the origin of that behavior in a very distant, ecologically different past. Order from Amazon.com.

--Sarah Richardson

The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves. W. W. Norton, 1999. $24.95.

Seventy percent of our planet is hidden from sight, concealed beneath water--a billion trillion tons of it. After centuries of exploration and research, we know astonishingly little about this other "land." Robert Kunzig, Discover's European editor, has gathered what we do know, and his lucid, lyric prose dives deep: Where did all our water come from? Why do we know more about the topography of Venus than of our own seafloor? What route does water follow in its millennium-long trip around the globe? Don't look here for playful penguins or clever dolphins. Instead meet scads of jellies (the "snot of the sea"); sulfur-eating tube worms; and holothurians, which from time to time excrete their guts. Kunzig conveys a profound respect for the delicacy and complexity of life under the sea, as well as admiration for the scientists who have illuminated this murky realm. Order from Amazon.com.

--Margaret Foley

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