Skip to main content

The Lives of Ants – Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon *****

We’re in the habit of moaning about OUP popular science because it’s often the case they have great subjects, but written by academics making the books often poor to read. The recommendation is that they get their academics to link up with a writer, and in effect that is what has happened here, as the book is a translation (probably from French) – and benefits hugely, because unlike many of its fellows it is a joy to read.
It would be ironic if that enhanced readability were coupled with a less than inspiring subject – but not here. The subject is, as it says on the tin, the lives of ants, and they are truly incredible. At risk of sounding like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may think you know about ants, but that’s nothing when you see the sheer variety and complexity of ant life. The different species indulge in all sorts of behaviours, from rearing insect ‘cattle’ to capturing slaves and invading others’ nests and pretending to be of that species. We discover a queen ant of one species that spends its life riding on the back of a bigger queen from a different species. And then there are the ants that grow crops, the different ways the queens operate, the unusual sexual practices – in one species the males clone themselves as well as the queens (the workers are more normally produced), the only known creature in which a male is capable of this.
It’s simply stunning. I was slightly puzzled there wasn’t more about the super-organism concept, something that books about bees like The Buzz about Bees and The Super-Organism cover in a lot of detail. If the authors don’t think ants are a super-organism – i.e. a nest is effectively one creature, with the different insects acting almost like cells in a human’s body – then they should say so, and why. If they do think ants are a super-organism it ought to have been given more coverage. There is a passing reference to ‘swarm intelligence’ which may be the same concept, but it only really comes in the section on robots with ant-like behaviour, in itself an interesting bit of work, but not the main theme of the book.
I only have two other slight moans. One is that too long is spent on something that’s clearly of more interest to the author than the reader. This looks at the percentage of genetic relationship two ants have to each other on how this effects the way the ants treat each other. It goes on a bit. The other complaint is a simple factual error. We are told that ten million billion ants averaging three milligrams per ant weights roughly the same as the whole human population. Some basic arithmetic shows this to be wrong. There are around 6 billion people in the world – let’s make it 5 for ease of calculation. So that’s 2 million ants per person. Two million lots of three milligrams is six kilos. Now I know there are a lot of babies in the world, but there’s no way the average human being weighs six kilos – this is almost an order of magnitude out.
These are minor gripes, though, in what is a riveting book about a fascinating subject.
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…