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Reviews: December 1999

More than 600 species fly, writhe, hop, lurk, and, yes, swim in Baltimore's aquarium.

By Michael M Abrams, Scott Kim, and Marc T Simon
Dec 1, 1999 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 7:06 PM


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When my best friend, Maggie, separated from her husband and moved into the apartment above mine, her friends agreed that she needed a pet. She was skeptical. She'd spent too many years, she felt, taking care of others instead of herself. So she turned down offers of puppies, kittens, a blue budgie, and a fighting fish. Then one evening, I heard excited footsteps on my ceiling. The phone rang: "Come upstairs and meet Charlotte." In a pickle jar handsomely furnished with twigs, a gleaming black beauty the size of my thumbnail was spinning a cottony web. On her abdomen, round as a raindrop, Charlotte wore a scarlet hourglass - the mark of the black widow. "Don't worry," said Maggie. "The man who gave her to me says her bite won't kill a healthy adult, it'll only hurt. A lot."Charlotte was hatched in Queens, and to Queens she eventually returned, after Maggie awoke one morning to find an egg sac attached to a twig. Although Charlotte was living in celibacy, black widows, like many animals, can store sperm for a rainy day. Unwilling to live in a building overrun with venomous spiderlings, we handed her over to a park ranger, jar and all.

Black widows thrive in damp places, like the wetland park where Charlotte was captured (illegally). But people who don't live near swamps, dank basements, or courageous divorcées have a last chance to see one of these eight-legged hazards at the National Aquarium at Baltimore, before "Venom: Striking Beauties," a traveling exhibit, heads for Tennessee on January 2. The black widow display, a tank filled artfully with broken bottles, includes a male, looking tiny, pale, and negligible beside his elegant female conspecific. Among the more than 25 other species in the exhibit are a goliath bird-eating tarantula and an orb-weaving spider with graceful tortoiseshell limbs. The tarantula can flick its leg hairs at attackers, making human skin itch and causing smaller creatures more serious trouble. Terraria lining the walls contain plenty of many-limbed crawlies besides spiders: Glistening black emperor scorpions cluster together like bits of coal, brandishing globby brown stingers. Furry, wingless cow-killer wasps use bright red coloration to warn off potential diners.

Other tanks house venomous inhabitants in fresh or salt water - this is, after all, an aquarium. An anemone waits for prey, its white-tipped tentacles craning in unison like spectators at a ball game. In a sandy tank, camouflaged stingrays, orange toadfish, and spotted scorpion fish pretend to be rocks or part of the sandy seafloor, then ripple into softness as they swim. Various sea snakes and kraits, relatives of cobras, thrash through the water with their flattened, spoonlike tails.

Visitors on their way to "Venom" glide upward on moving walkways, past a 65-foot skeleton of a fin whale suspended in midair. They can look down upon kite-shaped rays that seem to glide along the floor but are actually contained in vast, flat tanks. Divers drop smelts, squid, or shelled clams in front of each animal, which slurps the treat whole. The tank fills the air with a murky fragrance. The exhibit feels austere, but other areas of the aquarium engulf visitors in exotic environments. A rain forest lies beneath the pyramidal skylight roof. It's a riot of green, a racket of birds - including colorful tanagers, three species of parrots, and a screaming piha, the loudest bird in the world. A spiral ramp plunges visitors into the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, where contemplative lookdowns glide by, along with porcupine fish and many others. Visitors may descend further into the dimly lit world of sharks. Along with the usual looming monsters, plump nurse sharks rest on the tank floor, as if someone had dropped them. They use whiskery barbels to sense prey hidden in the sand.

Admission includes a trip to the Marine Mammal Pavilion, where bottle-nosed dolphins and their trainers perform half-hour shows in a turquoise amphitheater. The dolphins demonstrate such spectacular natural behaviors as "porpoising" - leaping high in the air at top speed - or "fishwhacking," stunning prey (or, here, a beach ball) with a sharp blow. Graceful, inscrutable, cute as all get-out, they teach breathless lessons in ecology and natural history. It's rare to be in the presence of such charismatic teachers.

-- Polly Shulman


'Tis the month of toys for girls, boys, and gadget-crazed adults. We scoped out countless new science-related playthings and fell in love with these.

Courtesy Scientific Explorer

The Meteor Rocket Kit by Scientific Explorer www.scientificexplorer.com,, $20.

Science-fair veterans who cherish memories of homemade volcanoes filled with vinegar and baking soda will find the Meteor Rocket Kit familiar yet strangely satisfying. Scientific Explorer has turned the erupting volcano on its head, with far more dynamic results. Their model rocket uses the guaranteed explosiveness of baking soda and vinegar mixed in a closed container to launch a plastic liter soda bottle with fins 150 feet above terra firma. When the ingredients mix, they create large amounts of carbon dioxide. Soon the gas forces a cork out of the bottle and pushes the rocket forcefully in the opposite direction—which, if all goes well, is up.

The kit comes with all the necessary pieces, but assembly is tiresome. Unless you have access to plastic cement and are good at jury-rigging clamps, we suggest construction plan B: gluing the tail fins to a piece of paper and then taping that to the bottle. Then vinegar goes in the bottle, a tube of baking powder is slipped in, and the cork rammed home. The instructions say to turn the bottle so the baking soda drops into the vinegar, give it a shake, set it down, and wait eight to 30 seconds for blastoff. However, our first launch attempt suffered from premature mixing, sending the cork whizzing past an accomplice's head. On attempts two and three, we managed to get the bottle turned the right way up, but it still went off in our hands. Success came on the fourth try. We got as close to the ground as possible, dumped in the baking soda, passed on the shake step, and set the thing down just before it took off like, well, a rocket. It may take a half-dozen tries to get right, but once it goes, what a sight. Perhaps the trials are meant to recapture rocket pioneer Robert Goddard's heart-stopping early launch catastrophes. This is not a toy to play with in evening dress.

Image: iStockphoto | NULL

Courtesy Sega

Sega Dreamcast www.sega.com, $200.

Although video-game machines that hook up to home TVs have been around for a long time, the Sega Dreamcast tops them all, bringing years of electronics research into the living room. The console's processing power is state of the art but, unlike a normal computer that must devote a good bit of its brainpower to boring stuff like tax returns, most of the Sega's power goes into graphics. The ultra-high-quality images and sound move forward at top speed without a lurch or hiccup. High-tech software adds to the effect; several of the sports games were generated from motion-captured images of real athletes. The Dreamcast has a built-in modem that allows lonesome gamesters to dial into Sega's network and play against other people. The same setup also works as a Web browser. For those who don't like being chained to a TV, the system's memory card doubles as a handheld game that can travel almost anywhere.

Courtesy Handspring

Visor by Handspring Inc.www.handspring.com, $150-$250.

The Stowaway by Think Outside, $100.

Gizmo fans might have thought they were in handheld heaven when computer-organizers like the Palm Pilot appeared, letting them take their address books, chess games, and favorite recipes on the road. Now the creators of that product have gone off on their own and one-upped themselves. Visor looks a lot like a Palm Pilot, but with one big difference: It's expandable. There's a slot in the back where users can plug in memory cards to back up data, or modules that contain games or books. Even better, users will soon be able to pop in accessories that turn the Visor into a pager, an MP3 music player, a gps receiver, or even a cell phone. The Stowaway adds a full-sized keyboard that folds away like an origami accordion.

Courtesy OWI

SilverBot by K'nex www.knex.com, $20.

The Amphibious Solar Vehicle by OWI Inc.www.owirobot.com, $40.

Space Wings by Mondo-tronicswww.mondo.com, $20.

Some people think there's no satisfaction in a device that emerges from the box fully assembled. Robots are a perfect toy for them. After all, how can one pretend to be an evil scientist without actually building the engines of world destruction? The SilverBot is a simple step on the road to roboticist. Detailed graphics show how to snap together the bot, which strides forward on spindly legs, its head scanning the room and its arms waving.

For those with naval ambitions, the Amphibious Solar Vehicle offers a slightly more advanced entry point. The body is made of Styrofoam, but there are quite a few pieces to add. Powered by solar panels, it will trundle across bathtubs or pools. Despite its amphibious claims, it doesn't work as well on land—there's no front wheel, so carpets can trip it up.

That's not a problem for Space Wings, an unusual kit that looks deceptively simple. Its pair of Mylar butterfly wings flaps periodically, although not so vigorously that the whole gadget actually takes off. The wings' motion isn't created by a motor but by a wire made of a shape-memory alloy, which contracts when an electric current passes through it. The kit, while small, is involved, and the circuit board requires assembly. Although useless for taking over the world, this earthbound flying machine will set the imagination soaring.-- Fenella Saunders

Books Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love Dava Sobel WALKER & COMPANY, $27

History has given us Galileo the astronomer, Galileo the mathematician, and Galileo the philosopher. But of Galileo the father, we know little. In fact, the 17th-century Italian scientist, whose full name was Galileo Galilei, had three children—Virginia, Livia, and Vincenzio—with Marina Gamba, a Venetian woman whom he never married. Vincenzio studied law and married an heiress, while Livia remains a shadowy figure. It is Virginia's voice that powers this book. The eldest of the three, she was known for most of her life as the nun Suor Maria Celeste. She was Galileo's confidante, religious adviser, apothecary, and estate executor. Though deeply religious, she never wavered in her loyalty to her father, even when his ideas were under severe attack by the Catholic Church. Their meeting of minds forms the hub of this absorbing memoir.

That Maria Celeste has a voice in history is due to the survival of a packet of 124 letters she wrote to her father from the Convent of San Matteo, just south of Florence, where she lived from the age of 13. According to the parish register of Padua, her birthplace, she was "born of fornication”—out of wedlock—a condition that in her father's opinion rendered her unmarriageable. Deeming convent life the best alternative, in 1613 he deposited his two daughters into the care of the Poor Clares, a cloistered order of nuns who embraced poverty. Livia became Suor Arcangela upon taking her vows; Virginia took her name from the heavens.

The nuns guarded Maria Celeste from the outside world, and from physical contact with her father, who could speak to her on visits only through a grille. She reached out in her letters, which were carried to Galileo in laundry baskets, in the pockets of messengers, and sometimes on horseback through the often plague-ridden Italian countryside. That Galileo wrote back is clear from her words, but his replies do not survive, perhaps burned—as the perfidious screed of a heretic—after his daughter's death in 1634.

Dava Sobel has translated Maria Celeste's missives from the Italian. Published in English for the first time, they provide a fascinating insight into both Maria Celeste's relationship with her father and the life of an educated, if isolated, 17th-century nun. Mixed in with her expressions of love for Galileo and prayers for his welfare are recipes for candied quince, prescriptions against the plague, an appeal to repair the convent's clock, numerous pleas for money, and a request for a telescope—a hint that she, too, was scanning the skies. Domestic concerns feature prominently. "The lettuce that was sown according to your instructions never came up," she writes on one occasion. "I am returning the tablecloth in which you wrapped the lamb you sent; and you, Sire, have a pillowcase of ours, which we put over the shirts in the basket with the lid," she says on another.

But this is not just a collection of letters. It is also the story of Galileo's life—his experiments in mechanics and motion, his study of the stars, and his trial by the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Sobel addresses this last event with a keen understanding of the science behind the quarrel. As she makes clear, Galileo presented his case for the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun not as an attack on the Church but in the form of a dialogue between competing views: "Ptolemaic" and "Copernican." Alas, it was not until 1992—three and a half centuries after Galileo's death—that Pope John Paul II publicly endorsed his philosophy. Suor Maria Celeste's letters tell us she was convinced of "the justice of the cause and your innocence in this instance,” long before. "Nemo Propheta acceptus in patria sua," she wrote on October 15, 1633. "No one is accepted as a prophet in his own country." -Josie Glausiusz

Order Galileo's Daughter from Amazon.com.

Forty Years at Gombe: A Tribute to Four Decades of Wildlife Research, Education, and ConservationWritten by the staff of the Jane Goodall Institute with a forward by Gilbert M. GrosvenorSTEWART, TABORI, and CHANG, $29.99.

Chimpanzees, humankind's furry-bodied, barefaced cousins, carry genes so similar to ours that we could give one another blood transfusions. During four decades of field work in Africa, Jane Goodall, the world's most celebrated primatologist, found other commonalities. In 1960, the English native became the first researcher to prove that chimpanzees use tools, after watching one of them peel bark from a stick to probe holes for ants, a favorite snack. She discovered that chimpanzees share our penchant for interpersonal contact, such as tickling, kissing, and hugging—as well as such darker habits as murder, cannibalism, and genocide.Forty Years at Gombe, a thinking-primate's coffee-table book, offers an edifying overview of Goodall's accomplishments as a student, teacher, and savior of chimpanzees. (Readers interested in serious research data may prefer Goodall's 1986 opus, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior.) Fascinated by animal behavior since childhood, Goodall started out for Kenya as a teenager with money she'd earned waiting tables. There she met the famed paleontologist Louis Leakey, who later helped her win a $1,400 grant to study chimpanzees at Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania.

At first, the chimps would run at the sight of this "strange white creature." So Goodall began scattering bananas around the sanctuary's grounds, earning the allegiance of an old silver-whiskered male she called David Greybeard, and his cronies. Greybeard passed away in 1968, but Fifi, who was just an infant chimp when Goodall first met her in 1960, has lived to produce eight children, two grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. "There are some memories that are shared by us alone, memories of the early sixties," Goodall says of Fifi.

"When I first started at Gombe, I thought the chimps were nicer than we are," Goodall once said. "But now time has revealed that they are not. They can be just as awful." Alpha males, she noted, fight for dominance and, like prison inmates and corporate managers, the vanquished chimps sometimes soothe themselves by attacking lower-ranking members of a clan.

Over the years, as destructive farming methods and the bush-meat trade have threatened chimps' survival, Goodall has worked to save them. She set up the Lake Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education project, which promotes preservation through improved farming practices, and Roots and Shoots, a program that teaches ecology to children around the world.

Later in her career, Goodall began investigating the welfare of chimpanzees outside their natural habitats. "They languish in countless bad zoos, they are brutally treated in the entertainment industry," she writes. "And the animal research industry has imprisoned hundreds in five-foot-by-five prison cells where they must endure 30 years or more of solitary confinement without companionship, comfort, or love."

Such images led Goodall to pry herself away from Gombe, her home for nearly four decades, to spend most of her time speaking out for humane treatment of chimpanzees.

Goodall's evolution—from a curious teenager who eventually earned a doctorate without ever attending college into a semi-ceo who presides over a charitable empire with affiliate organizations in 50 countries and 44 U.S. states—inspires awe. Now this book's large color photographs of our soulful, whimsical cousins will undoubtedly inspire even jaded humans to reach for their checkbooks.—Rebecca Reisner

Order Forty Years at Gombe from Amazon.com.


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