Skip to main content

Natural Acts – David Quammen ****

Somewhat over half of this book dates back more than twenty years, while the final 130 pages or so are twenty-first century additions. It’s a collection of (mostly) short pieces – and this is something David Quammen does superbly well. There are occasions when he seems to realize how well he does it, but apart from this occasional smugness it’s excellent writing where the topic interests him – patently obvious when he’s talking about wildlife.
Sometimes the approach can take you by surprise – speaking in defence of the mosquito, for example – and always there’s something to delight. I particularly liked the piece that puts across the idea that crows are bored underachievers, and the paean to the bat.
In his earlier writing, there’s only set of pieces where the lustre fades a little, and that’s when he talking about geology rather than natural history. It clearly doesn’t work for him quite the same way.
When I got onto the more modern section, I thought that Quammen was suffering from a literary version of that old chestnut that scientists do all their best work before they’re thirty. The first couple of pieces are tedious and really don’t live up to the electric prose of the earlier sections. But the realization comes with much better pieces further on that it’s not the date that’s the issue, it’s the length. Quammen’s writing style is absolutely perfect for a short, quickly digested piece. When you get to these longer articles – 28 and 49 pages – the whole delicate construction disappears and we’re left with something that isn’t in the same league. But don’t be put off – there are more short pieces to come.
Despite the disappointment raised by those couple of relative clunkers, the collection as a whole is engrossing and the short pieces are just the right length to capture the interest without ever flagging. The older pieces are as fresh, if not fresher, than the newer ones. All-in-all, just as Quammen clearly enjoys exploring the natural world, you will enjoy exploring the world of his writing.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…