Richard Robinson

Science Writer/Science Editor

College and High School Science

Editor-in-Chief: Genetics MacMillan Reference, 2003

Genetics is a four-volume encyclopedia for high school students. Its 250+ entries are written primarily by experts in the field, edited to provide the background and reading level appropriate for this age. Most entries are illustrated with full-color line art or photographs.

Genetics covers every topic that arises in teaching high school genetics, and many that don't, from fundamental concepts to cutting-edge applications. It explains the history, theory, technology, and uses (and misuses) of genetic knowledge. It spans the field from classical genetics to molecular genetics to population genetics. Genetics stands alone as a single-source reference work covering this breadth and depth of material for this level. Students and teachers can use the set to reinforce classroom lessons (e.g., on basic genetic processes), or to expand on a discussion (e.g., chromosome structure or a genetic disease), or learn about an entirely new idea (e.g., eugenics or DNA microarrays).

For this work, as well as Biology and Plant Sciences, I hired the editorial board, created the table of contents, and outlined the scope of each entry. In addition, I edited every entry, ensuring scientific accuracy, coherence, interest, relevance, and clarity. Many entries required significant reorganization or supplementation to ensure that the proper background and connections to classroom material were provided, to ensure that the reading and vocabulary levels were appropriate to the high school student, and to add topically relevant details that keep reading interest high. I also designed most of the diagrams that illustrate genetic and cellular concepts in this work.

Editor-in-Chief: Biology MacMillan Reference, 2002

Biology is the second title in MacMillan’s series of new encyclopedias for high school students. Its 432 entries span the range of biological subjects, from Active Transport to Zoology.

Editor-in-Chief: Plant Sciences  MacMillan Reference, 2000 

"Lovely to look at and delightful to read"--Booklist

Plant Sciences is a four-volume encyclopedia for high school students. Its 280 entries were written almost exclusively by professionals in the plant sciences, and have been edited to meet the needs and reading level of high school students studying biology. It is extensively illustrated in full color, and contains a glossary and comprehensive index. Topics include agriculture, plant ecology, systematics and evolution, molecular biology, history of botany, and careers in the plant sciences.

View the cover and read the preface

Read the reviews at Amazon

Associate Editor, World of Chemistry Gale Research, 2000

Editorial Consultant: Modern Biology, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston 1999

Writer: Plants and People: Fifteen essays for Raven's Biology of Plants, 6th ed. Worth, New York 1997

Chapter 1: The Coffee Connection
It's a fair bet that most of us don't ponder the likelihood of a light frost in the Brazilian rainforest over our morning cup of coffee, nor give much thought to the export economy of Uganda while we sip our decaf cappuccino. Nonetheless, the coffee we drink links us to these issues and many more, and the simple choices we make about coffee have effects on the environment and economies of developing nations throughout the world.

Chapter 2: Hearts, Minds, and More: Botanical Drugs
In 1597, John Gerard published what became one of the most important botanical books of all time. His Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, described more than 1000 species, providing physicians, midwives, and other medical practitioners with a single, comprehensive source of information about medicinal plants.

Chapter 5: Cellulase: A Bright Future in Faded Jeans
Before the advent of stone washing, breaking in a new pair of blue jeans meant weeks of stiffness and discomfort, since new denim feels more like a suit of shiny blue armor than the centerpiece of the casual wardrobe. The introduction of stone-washed jeans changed all that. By pre-washing the jeans with highly abrasive stones, the stiff denim fabric could be weakened and softened. Stone washing provided an instant, off-the-shelf, comfortable fit and a slightly worn look that could be paid for with cash rather than prolonged suffering.

Chapter 7: Sweetness and Light: The Making of Maple Syrup
As it drips steadily into the bucket, the thin, clear maple sap looks for all the world like water. Only 2 percent sugar, even its taste barely hints at the sweetness soon to be distilled from it. Rising through the xylem, the sap carries upward through the tree the profits of last summer's sunshine for reinvestment in the spring's new growth. Tapping a small part of those profits is the key to maple sugaring. But it isn't easy—the sap will still need half a day of boiling off at the sugar house to reach its final concentration of 66 percent sugar, and to acquire the rich taste and silky texture of maple syrup.

Chapter 11: The A-Maizing Insights of Barbara McClintock
Ears of maize—sometimes called Indian corn—are prized for their multicolored kernels. To the untrained eye, the riot of color and patterns within individual kernels appear merely chaotic, beautiful but meaningless. To one extraordinary geneticist, though, they revealed a story that ultimately illuminated the complex genetic patterns at the heart of life.

Chapter 13: Native Seeds
With an annual rainfall averaging only 30 centimeters, the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico is one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet. The summer sun can drive the outside temperature above 110 degrees F, withering plants and people alike. Rain may be weeks or even months away. Nonetheless, with the right combination of crops and farming practices, Native American farmers of the O'odham tribes have survived and even thrived in this region for centuries. Dozens of unique plant varieties, whose hallmarks are their tolerance for heat, lack of water, and alkali desert soils, have been developed and passed down by Pima farmers for generations. Other Indian tribes of the Southwest—the Hopi and Havasu farther to the north, the Yaqui and Tarahumara to the south—have developed their own races of these crops, each suited to the local climate and terrain. Such "heirloom varieties" of corn, beans, peas, chiles, melons, and other crops form the basis of this indigenous agriculture, and in turn of indigenous cultures as well.

Chapter 15: The World's Largest Organism?
Records are made to be broken, as the saying goes, and when they are, the record breaker may win not only personal fame but also a little glory for the home country. So when a trio of botanists announced in April of 1992 that the world's largest organism was a fungus, the news earned new respect for an entire kingdom that usually gets vanishingly little of it.

Chapter 18: Murder Preserved: Tales of the Bogmen
On Friday, August 1, 1984, a peat cutter working on Lindow Moss near Manchester, England, made a remarkable and gruesome discovery—a leg severed below the knee, tanned brown by the acid muck. Although badly damaged by the mechanical peat harvester, it was preserved well enough to distinguish even the hairs on the skin. Further excavation nearby led to the finding of the upper body, and with it evidence of the extreme violence of the man's death. Dubbed Lindow Man, he is believed to have lived 2000 years ago and may have been killed in a ritual of human sacrifice. With his discovery, Lindow Man became the latest and perhaps the most celebrated of over 1,500 bodies discovered in the bogs of northwest Europe.

Chapter 20: Ginkgo biloba: A Singular Medicine
There can be few human afflictions as cruel as Alzheimer's disease. Affecting 5 percent of all people over 65, it causes an insidious, slowly progressive dementia, gradually stealing memory, cognitive ability, and, finally, personality. The only available medicines offer at best a short reprieve from the long decline. Recently, though, a new treatment has emerged from a unique plant that was once near extinction. An extract from the gymnosperm Ginkgo biloba has now been shown to alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, and with fewer side effects than conventional treatments. With this news comes a greater respect for herbal remedies of all kinds, and an increased likelihood that more alternative medicines will be tested for their potential to treat other intractable diseases.

Chapter 22: Poison Ivy: An Unlovable Success
Nature lovers throughout the country find pleasure and serenity in their contact with the wilderness, returning home with memories and photographs collected like souvenirs. But for millions of people each year, outdoor adventure also provides one souvenir they'd rather have left behind—an itchy, blistering rash from contact with poison ivy.

Chapter 25: Phytoremediation: Rooting for Cleaner Soils
The words "environmental catastrophe" usually call to mind an oil tanker running aground or a nuclear power plant melting down. While such dramatic disasters garner headlines, their impact pales beside the toxic legacy of another catastrophe, the cumulative damage from thousands of small chemical spills and dumps across the country. The scope of the problem is staggering. More than 30,000 chemical and radioactive waste sites are littered throughout the United States, with an estimated cost for cleanup of more than half a trillion dollars. For most of these sites, the only treatment option has been to excavate the contaminated soil—often hundreds of dump trucks full—and to rebury it in a sealed landfill.

Chapter 29: Kudzu: Way Too Much of a Good Thing
Kudzu: a.k.a. Pueraria lobata, "mile-a-minute vine," "the great green monster," "the vine that ate the South," and a lot of names not fit for print, is the subject of films, poetry, songs, and more than a few nightmares. Introduced as an ornamental, kudzu was planted widely as a soil stabilizer but is now universally vilified as an ecological disaster. Smotherer of fields, annihilator of forests, and obliterater of landscapes throughout the South, kudzu captures the imagination perhaps more than any other plant—certainly more than any other weed—with its sprawl, its fecundity, and its reckless, relentless growth.

Chapter 32: The Living Machine: Sewage Treatment You Could Learn to Love
Sewage treatment plants don't usually attract many tourists, let alone inspire the praise and even affection of those who visit. But at the visitor's center of Corkscrew Swamp Audubon Sanctuary in southwestern Florida, the sewage treatment facility does exactly that, and has won international recognition for its designer, John Todd, along the way. The installation, called The Living Machine, recycles the wastewater from several hundred visitors each day, producing water that is clean enough to swim in. But unlike traditional chemical treatment facilities, it uses plants, along with bacteria, algae, snails, and even fish. The Living Machine is, in fact, a controlled ecosystem whose food web is based on the rich nutrients in human sewage. And it all happens in a greenhouse that looks, sounds, and even smells just the way a greenhouse should.

Chapter 33: Prescribed Burn: The Hottest Thing in Forestry
Since our origin as a species, humans have been an important element in forest ecology, and we became even more so with the development of fire. While lightning has always been a significant source of forest fires, humans have been another. Since prehistoric times, fires have been set intentionally to improve grazing lands, drive game, or reduce mosquito populations. Most fires, however, have been spread through carelessness, escaping from campfires or signal fires.

Chapter 34: Sustainable Forestry
In the time it will take you to read this essay, 300 hectares of tropical rainforest will be clearcut somewhere in the world. All the trees within this area will be removed, disrupting or displacing indigenous communities, destroying local ecosystems, and wiping out populations or even whole species of organisms. While some of the wood will be harvested for lumber, a large fraction of it will be burned as waste or fuel, releasing centuries of stored carbon into the atmosphere as the planet-warming "greenhouse gas," CO2. At the same time, this loss of rainforest reduces the planet's ability to prevent greenhouse warming, since the rainforests are responsible for absorbing more CO2 than any other terrestrial ecosystem. While much of this forest land will be replanted for pasture or crops, the thin tropical soil will be exhausted within three years, and the land will be abandoned. What little soil is left will most likely be carried away by heavy rains, and with it will go any hope of restoring the forest in that area. Those 300 hectares will become 86,000 hectares by the end of the day. In a year, an area the size of Kansas will be leveled, and lost, forever.

Writer and Web Resources Editor for Tobin and Dusheck’s Asking About Life, 2nd edition
Choose a chapter and click on "Quizzes" or "Web Links". You can also read these two "Web Bits," feature articles on the theme of the chapter:

Industrious Enzymes

Once and Future Kings: The Elm and Chestnut in America


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Last updated June 2004