Monday, 10 May 2010

Bats Sing, Mice Giggle – Karen Shanor & Jagmeet Kanwal ****

This has to be one of the more eye-catching titles for a popular science book – it grabs the attention and makes you smile – then the content makes you think. The idea is to explore the inner life of animals, and make us realize that they are much richer than we realize.
Things start off strongly with a first chapter on the way animals respond to and generate electric fields. We’re all familiar with the zapping ability of electric eels, but there’s much more to this area. Not just milder electric field generation for location purposes, but also passive electric field detection that enables, for instance, sharks to home in on their prey. Then we move onto the use of magnetic fields, whether in bird migration, cows aligned North/South (rather frustratingly referred to but not really explored) or birds that appear to be able to see magnetism (with the right eye only). By the time you’ve added in creatures that can sense and interact by vibration you begin to get a strong picture that the ‘five senses’ are just a tiny part of the sensing spectrum.
We go on to look at different aspects of animal adaptability, behaviour, humour, communication and much more. Unless you are absolutely on top of this subject there are bound to be aspects that are truly amazing. Whether it’s the way salamanders can rebuild brain function after there brain has been removed, “ground up” and returned (this could have done with a bit more explanation) or the way even small brained creatures like birds have some degree of self recognition, or can count, the book is bursting with examples to make the reader go ‘Wow!’ It’s one of those reads where it’s difficult to resist turning to someone nearby and telling them about something you’ve read. I couldn’t resist doing a blog post based on something it mentions.
There are a few problems with the book, not huge, but mildly irritating. There’s a tendency to suddenly say ‘Karen did this…’ and the reader thinks ‘Karen who?’ It’s a mistake to assume that the reader can remember the authors’ names, and over-familiar to introduce them into the flow in such a careless fashion. Worse, many of the chapters can seem to be a collection of ‘this animal does this, and that animal does that’ statements – more a well written list than any form of developing picture.
On the science side, the authors are noticeably weak when the science strays into physics and should have got more help. For instance, when referring to quantum entanglement (for some reason in the vibration section), they say that if you have a pair of entangled particles at A and B, ‘a code can be sent out from A to B without any information occurring between A and B, therefore preventing interception.’ Leaving aside the strange usage of ‘information occurring’ they seem to think that you can use an entangled link to send a message. You can’t. It can be used to encrypt data, but not in the way they seem to think it can. They should have read The God Effect.
If you overlook the physics flaws (which are minor and don’t get in the way of the main message), this is mostly a readable, enjoyable introduction to an impressive subject. Despite years of natural history programming on the TV, a good book like this can still really open our eyes to wonders of nature in a fresh way. And that’s not a bad thing.
Also in hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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