Wednesday, January 28, 2015

What We're Reading: New Science Books

Arrival of the Fittest:
by Andreas Wagner

Wagner begins his book with an overview of life’s amazing diversity, and the problem he poses concerning the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection is this:

"Selection did not---cannot---create all this variation. A few decades after Darwin, Hugo de Vries expressed it best when he said that 'natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.' And if we do not know what explains its arrival, then we do not understand the very origins of life’s diversity."

The real mystery of evolution, Wagner argues is not selection, but the creation of new phenotypes (the physical expressions that genes encode). Mere randomness in mutations is insufficient as an explanation because ..…given the staggering odds, selection is not enough. We need a principle that accelerates innovation.” Life has what Wagner calls “innovability,” the ability to find solutions to changes in environment and challenges to viability and survival that, compared to the adaptations that might be “discovered” by mere random mutation alone, occur at warp speed. This book explains how this is so.

This idea itself should be enough to draw in the reader, because, while modern biology as a science may have moved on to a new understanding of how life works, popular notions--the ones that most of us have grown up with--change more slowly. They are changed by books like this, where research scientists try to explain to a lay audience what they have discovered and what the implications of that discovery are for our understanding of life. Major scientific ideas create new paradigms that with time come to permeate our thought and culture. We take scientific ideas and make them into analogies and algorithms that we use to explain more than the physical world alone, using their concepts to explain the workings of our cultural and social lives. They frame our idea of what life is and how it works, and what our place is in the universe. So it has been with the Copernican Revolution, Newton’s physical laws, Darwin’s explanation of where species come from. The influential paradigm with which most of us have grown up, the one that remains in popular culture, is that we live in a random universe, that life is what it is by chance, by the random alterations that occur to DNA and to genes, the codes that are the key to how life and its diverse forms has evolved. This is an exciting book because it challenges that notion with recent research and discoveries. If you are a creationist, don’t get too excited: Wagner’s argument is that there is a self-organization to life that follows “rules” of mathematical organization, rules that allow it to develop a special robustness through complexity and to achieve an extraordinary ability to uncover useful innovations while maintaining viability.

Wagner treats us to an interesting exploration of where “innovation” in life began, and speculates about what kind of environments might have been most conducive to the origin of life. Wagner is very interested in the environment of deep sea vents. There is also an interesting exploration of a version of the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum concerning the development of early life, or in this case, what came first in the development of life’s two necessary features of viability: metabolism and reproduction? Wagner argues that “life started not with a replicator, but with a metabolism.” He explores the “innovability” of metabolism in bacteria and also the frequency of horizontal gene transfer in some of the simpler and original organisms that still thrive on the planet.

The major discovery Wagner is interested in explaining to us in this book is that of genotype networks, arguing that those genotype networks are "the common origin of the different kinds of innovations---in metabolism, regulation, and macromolecules---that created life as we know it.” Their discovery came about as a result of the mathematical perspective of systems biology, the intertwining of biology and mathematics, which has also revealed the conceptual and physical architecture of the ”libraries” of life that genotypes are able to explore, demonstrating how they can accumulate innovations while still maintaining their viability and “phenotypic” meaning. Wagner reveals for us a portrait of life that is astonishingly more robust and complex than we imagined, one in which life can explore a variety of innovations without those mutations being fatal to the life of the organism. We learn how an organism has backup systems--a variety of ways to solve the same environmental problem it might face, part of the redundancy and complexity that comprises the variability which will allow it to sustain life.

Part of the scientific paradigm we grew up with was that DNA was a key that (in a rather straightforward way) encoded certain physical traits, and that mapping the human genome would allow us to unlock all kinds of secrets about physical development, among them allowing us to predict the likelihood of disease. But the reality, as Wagner explains, is that we have discovered that life is unimaginably more complex than this, that the relationship between genotype and phenotype is moderated by entire circuits of regulatory genes that influence the way any gene is ultimately expressed. Yes, Wagner shows us that life is more complex than we had imagined, but he also shows us that it follows rules, that there is an organization and architecture that can be explored, and he shows us how those rules, rather than randomness, mutation, and natural selection alone, explain life’s remarkable ability to adapt and to endure. The computationally challenged should not despair--Wagner has an exceptional ability to give us a picture of all of this by using analogies that take us from the familiar to the new world he wishes to show us. This is exciting and effective popular science writing, and it’s a book that may change your ideas about the way life “works.”

Monday, January 26, 2015

This week at the library...

Buena Vista branch, 5:00 p.m.

Open enrollment ends on February 15--get your questions answered now!

Buena Vista branch, 7:00 p.m.

Family Night presents...

Magic, comedy, oddities!

Buena Vista branch, 7:00 p.m.

Young Adult Services presents…

Fairy Tale Readers' Theater

Featuring selections from:

Revolting Rhymes, by Roald Dahl
Instructions, by Neil Gaiman
Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses,
by Ron Koertge, our special guest!

His book will be available for purchase and autographing after the performance.

Buena Vista branch, 2:00 p.m.


For kids in grades K-4 (with a grownup).

Pirate games, pirate crafts, pirate BOOKS! Meet a real pirate, wear your pirate costume, take home a booty bag!

Seating is limited! Call 818-238-5610 to reserve your spot.

…also at 2:00 at Buena Vista…

Plus the usual Preschool and Toddler Story Times throughout the week! Check the Events Calendar for one at your branch.

Friday, January 23, 2015

At the library: Featured program

Burbank Public Library's Teen Services department started a readers' theater program back in 2010 when we invited actor/director David Purdham from Theatre Encino to work with our teens and incorporate a few of them into his group's production of The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, an Arthur Conan Doyle mystery. Since then, we have produced six more readers' theater programs (featuring works by Louisa May Alcott and O. Henry, William Shakespeare, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, and Douglas Adams!), some with David and some without, but all of them featuring or exclusively starring Burbank teens.

This month we are presenting the latest in the readers' theater series, and we appear, with the advent of such television shows as Once Upon A Time and Grim, such movies as Into the Woods, and such books as Cinder, by Marissa Meyer, to be right on trend with "Not So Happily Ever After," a collection of edgy and humorous retold fairy tales from the pens of Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, and Ron Koertge. As the opening lines from our first piece (by Dahl) say,

          I guess you think you know this story.
          You don't. The real one's much more gory.
          The phony one, the one you know,
          Was cooked up years and years ago,
          And made to sound all soft and sappy
          Just to keep the children happy.

One of Quentin Blake's delightful
illustrations for Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes.
We will be presenting the readers' theater performance on Thursday, January 29, at 7:00 p.m., at the Buena Vista branch in the auditorium. As an added fillip to this program, when we contacted author Ron Koertge to ask his permission to adapt and use material from his poetry collection, Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, he said that he would be delighted to attend the program to see his pieces performed. So we will have one of the authors on hand, and after the program you may, if you like, purchase his book and have it personally autographed! (We will also have copies of Revolting Rhymes, by Roald Dahl, and Instructions, by Neil Gaiman, available for purchase, but alas, no autographs.)

If you're not familiar with the concept of readers' theater, here is an explanation: Readers’ theater is a style of theater in which the actors do not memorize their lines; they sit and stand together on a stage and read from scripts. The actors use vocal expression to help the audience understand the story, rather than employing visual storytelling cues such as sets, costumes, and blocking. Nonetheless, it is definitely a theatrical experience!

We are so pleased by the continuity of this program--that we have teens in Burbank, year after year, who want to participate in something that showcases and encourages reading in our community. This year we have several teens in our cast of eleven who have appeared in three or four of our other productions, including two who have just started college; we have a couple of high-schoolers who got their feet wet this past summer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and wanted to do more; and we have four brand-new participants, including two brave (and charming) sixth-graders. We hope you will join us to see what they make of this darkly funny material!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What We're Reading: Sherlock Holmes

While Batman is often described as the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes must surely be the world’s best known. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective has been thrilling readers for almost 130 years with his masterful uses of reasoning, disguise and deduction to solve seemingly any crime. Doyle’s original Holmes adventures can be found in four novels and 56 short stories. These have been adapted to stage, radio, television and film, and the characters have been used by many authors for additional adventures as well. One of these new adventures is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.

Holmes has died, and Dr. John Watson, in his advanced age, has decided to document an adventure that he found simply too shocking and monstrous to write about when it occurred. He has made arrangements with his solicitors to hold the manuscript for 100 years before releasing it for publication, in the hope that, at the very least, all involved will have passed away (and be spared the shame of being associated with the exploits recounted). Watson also hopes that the sensibilities of future readers will enable them to deal better with the ramifications of the case than his contemporaries.

It all begins when Edmund Carstairs, a London fine art dealer, requests Holmes’s help. He is being menaced by a strange man with a scar who wears a flat cap. He believes the man is part of a criminal gang from Boston, where a robbery occurred involving several paintings from Carstairs’s firm. He believes the man has followed him back to London, and Carstairs needs Holmes’s assistance to determine who he is and what he wants. Holmes agrees to help, but then Carstairs’s home is robbed. While appearing to be a simply break-in, this seemingly simple theft will lead Holmes and Watson into a web of intrigue and conspiracy that reaches into the highest levels of London’s elite families and to the depths of the lowest depravities.

In House of Silk, the game is again afoot! Author Anthony Horowitz captures the tone and sensibility of Victorian London found in Doyle’s original works, and takes readers on a rousing adventure. All of the elements necessary to the enjoyment of a Holmes aficionado are present, within a completely new mystery. And Horowitz is so skilled at recreating the Holmes oeuvre that The House of Silk is one of the few Holmes pastiches to receive the endorsement of the Doyle estate. The House of Silk is an enjoyable visit from a friend we might not have been expecting, but will enjoy nonetheless!

An important final note: Horowitz does shine a light on some of the darker elements of the Victorian existence that Doyle would never have approached himself, and the crux of the mystery presented lies in one of these dark corners. Some readers may find the solution to the mystery distasteful.

Monday, January 19, 2015

This week at the library...

Central Library, 12:00 noon
(in the Literacy conference room)

Discussing Everything We Ever Wanted, by Sara Shepard. Please join us for lunch (byoBB) and a lively book discussion!

Buena Vista Library, 5:00 p.m.

Repeating every Tuesday until  February 10!

Buena Vista branch, 7:00 p.m.
(story time room)
At this first meeting, the club will discuss And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie. To sign up, contact Naomi at 818 238-5620.

Buena Vista branch, 4:00 p.m.

Family Film Festival presents...
97 minutes / PG

There will be an encore screening at the Central Library on Wednesday, February 4.

Central Library, 2:00 p.m.

Friday Movie Matinee presents...
111 minutes
With Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak

Buena Vista branch, 2:00 p.m.

2:00 p.m.

and at the same time over at the...
Central Library, 2:00 p.m.

Le Petit Cinema pr├ęsents…
122 minutes / PG

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Catalog Unavailable Monday

This coming Monday, January 19, the library catalog will receive a new software upgrade. As a result, the online catalog will be unavailable for most of the day. Access to the online catalog will resume as soon as service can be restored.

The catalog will be offline beginning between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m., for an unknown length of time on Monday. Please forgive this disruption to normal services.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Closed Monday

We would like to remind you that all branches of Burbank Public Library are CLOSED on Monday, January 19, to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

The library will reopen for service on Tuesday, January 20.