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The Rarest of the Rare    by Nancy Pick, Mark Sloan & Edward O. Wilson order for
Rarest of the Rare
by Nancy Pick
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In his Foreword, Joshua Basseches, Executive Director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, tells us that its specimens make up 'one of the nation's great research collections devoted to the natural world.' In his Introduction, Edward O. Wilson speaks of the specimens as 'the closest approach humanity can contrive to an actual time machine', and explains why these kinds of collections (later called 'vast libraries of DNA') are so valuable to research in biology and to modern conservation science.

An overview of 'Natural History at Harvard' includes a brief mention of misadventures that befell intrepid scientists while collecting specimens (shades of Indiana Jones), and describes a real life murder mystery ('The Mastodon Murder'), as well as covering the history of the museum. We are told that 'Behind every specimen in this book is a good story ... of wealthy explorers, obsessive collectors, bone hunters, mushroom seekers, and visionary scientists.' These tales (written by Nancy Pick) are organized into six themed chapters - Historic Holdings, Fossil Finds, Emblems of Biodiversity, Extinct Species, Scientific Discoveries, and Miscellany - and enhanced by Mark Sloan's beautiful photography.

The cover photo is that of 'Meriwether Lewis's Woodpecker', collected while seeking a river route to the Pacific in 1806, at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. 'Alexander Agassiz's Glass Sponge' (composed of silica) was dredged from about 1700 feet under the ocean. 'Frail Child of the Air' is a fossil butterfly, and also the title of a children's butterfly guidebook. 'They Dined on the Titanic' tells us about Ruth Dixon Turner, who specialized in the study of 'shipworms'. Read 'Double Identity' to find out what a 'gynandromorph' is, be amazed at the size and volume of the 'Elephant Bird Egg', wonder at the Australian project to restore the 'Tasmanian Tiger', and learn about 'ecomorphs' and much, much more.

Read The Rarest of the Rare for its fascinating accounts of the stories behind a sample of specimens from the huge collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which in turn represents only a sample of the extraordinary diversity in the world around us.

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