Where do you find Nabokov's butterflies, George Washington's pheasants, and the only stuffed bird remaining from the Lewis and Clark expedition? The vast collections of animals, minerals, and plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are among the oldest in the country, dating back to the 1700s. In the words of Edward O. Wilson, the museum stands as both "cabinet of wonder and temple of science." Its rich and unlikely history involves literary figures, creationists, millionaires, and visionary scientists from Asa Gray to Stephen Jay Gould. Its mastodon skeleton -- still on display -- is even linked to one of the nineteenth century's most bizarre and notorious murders.
The Rarest of the Rare tells the fascinating stories behind the extinct butterflies, rare birds, lost plants, dazzling meteorites, and other scientific and historic specimens that fill the museum's halls. You'll learn about the painting that catches Audubon in a shameful lie, the sand dollar collected by Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, and dozens of other treasures in this surprising, informative, and often amusing tour of the natural world.
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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.
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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
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