Monday, August 4, 2014

Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places

“You don’t know jack about heat.” (My patience with northern friends wears thin in the summer when they complain about steamy temperatures). “There’s nothing you can tell me about heat. I live in Tucson-- I wrote the book.

Well, maybe I didn't actually write it—but biologist Bill Streever did. It's called Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places and it’s well worth reading. Streever comes at the subject of heat from every angle you can imagine--and some that you probably can’t--including science, geography, history, physiology, and culture, and he has something intriguing to say about everything. In a style reminiscent of Bill Bryson he moves seamlessly from one hot topic to the next, and I found myself following eagerly. Factoids abound, and they are endlessly fascinating! A hike through Death Valley leads to ruminations on the effects on the human body of heat exhaustion and dehydration (the eyelids and lips disappear, the nose shrinks but the tongue hardens and swells. Don’t leave home without your water bottle). This naturally reminds him of the story of Pedro, who 100 years ago was lost in the deserts of southern Nevada and wandered eight days without water, surviving by chewing on cactus and pulling the stingers off scorpions so he could suck out their moisture.

With an easy narrative voice Streever takes us from peat bog people to Charles Dickens in a coal mine, from firebombs in Dresden to volcanoes in Hawaii, from the invention of matches to the invention of microwaves. It's all a tasty gumbo of science, anecdotes, radical travelogs and Streever's own, personal (and sometimes  jaw-dropping) heat-oriented experiments, like drinking crude oil and  fire walking.

It seems odd that the last word on heat should come from an Alaska resident (Streever lives in Anchorage) but he comes by his interest honestly. His previous book, Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, was a NYT bestseller.

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