Off the Shelf: Book reviews from the editors of Research/Penn State

book cover of “manual of leaf architecture”

No Leaves Unturned

Manual of Leaf Architecture (Cornell University)

Whether one is a "backyard botanist" or a tropical ecologist, this manual—illustrated with over 300 photographs of prepared stained leaves and dozens of line drawings—comprehensively describes, compares and classifies the leaves of flowering plants, including leaf traits such as organization, shape, venation, and margins.

The importance of being able to describe and identify plants based on their leaves rather than their flowers is especially useful for those who work with fossil leaves (typically found without flowers) and those whose interest is tropical plants with irregular and brief flowering cycles.

The authors—including Penn State associate professor of geosciences Peter Wilf—combined rigorous scholarship and a detailed examination of thousands of living and fossil leaves to create this book.

Colleagues have called it "a major contribution," "indispensable," and "eminently practical," and plant biologist Lawren Sack of UCLA remarked that "for those of us who study leaves, this guide is analogous to the first manual on human anatomy." Clearly, the Manual of Leaf Architecture—published in association with The New York Botanical Garden—looks like an instant classic in its field.

—Melissa Beattie-Moss

Peter Wilf, Ph.D., is associate professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

book cover of “the timetree of life”

Origins of Species

The Timetree of Life(Oxford University Press)

Think of evolutionary history and we think of phylogeny—the relationships between species represented by the all-embracing family tree of life. Equally important to scientific understanding, however, are timescales—knowing just when all those individual branches diverged.

Long after Darwin, establishing timescales was still dependent on the fossil record, and results were necessarily approximate. More recently, advances in DNA sequencing have allowed molecular clocks that can pinpoint divergences, and many researchers have devoted themselves to establishing accurate "timetrees" for individual species. Now Blair Hedges at Penn State and Sudhir Kumar at Arizona State are leading an initiative to synthesize these efforts into a unified whole.

As a first fruit, Oxford University Press has published The Timetree of Life, a comprehensive resource edited by Hedges and Kumar that includes timetrees and evolutionary histories for all of the major groups of organisms. A companion online database allows researchers to retrieve and update the data as new studies are completed.

"The ultimate goal," says Hedges, "is to chart the timescale of life—to discover when each species and all of its ancestors originated, all the way back to the origin of life some four billion years ago."

—David Pacchioli

S. Blair Hedges, Ph.D., is professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science; sbh1@psu.edu.

book cover of “Edgar Allen Poe and the Dupin Mysteries”

Father of the Detective Story

Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries(Palgrave Macmillan)

Richard Kopley, professor of English at Penn State DuBois, first became intrigued with Edgar Allan Poe in the late 1970s when he read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pymin a graduate course. "I was amazed by the mysterious vision at the end of the novel," Kopley says, "and I was convinced there was a solution to be found."

Sleuthing for solutions to the mysteries in Poe's writings and life is the focus of Kopley's most recent book, Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries. Although Poe is most widely known as a master of the macabre, Kopley's book underscores Poe's often-overlooked role as the inventor of the modern American detective story. Through diligent primary source research and secondary criticism, Kopley closely analyzes three Poe stories ("The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie RogÍt," and "The Purloined Letter,") and presents fresh and surprising insights about Poe's intense genius, dark themes, and tragic life.

—Melissa Beattie-Moss

Richard A. Kopley, Ph.D., is professor of English at Penn State DuBois; rxk3@psu.edu.

Last Updated February 23, 2010