Skip to main content

Restless Creatures - Matt Wilkinson ****

Matt Wilkinson makes the daring step for a biologist of quoting (or, rather, misquoting as we'll see later) Rutherford's famous put-down 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting'. But this risk fits well with Wilkinson's entertaining and bravura style in attempting and largely succeeding in persuading the reader that the biggest shaping factor of many living organisms, including humans, is the ability to move, with all the benefits and costs this brings.

One of the delights for the reader are the number of surprises along the way. In some cases it's something that really should be obvious, but probably never occurred to us - such as the way the basic shape of many organisms with, for example, a mouth at the front has been shaped by the nature of movement. Or the linkage of brain and movement. Wilkinson effortlessly takes us through the differences between walking and running in humans or the various ways that flying has evolved in different species, noting that there now seems reasonable evidence that even though birds mostly don't need to drop from a tree to start flight, their ancestors probably did.

In case we take too imperialistic a view of movement on land and in air as being what it's all about, we also are taken on an exploration of the various different forms of movement in water, and to see how animals that don't themselves move still make use of movement - plus one of the best explorations I've seen of a possible route from water to the land (noting how some land animals have very successfully made the move back to water again). And we are taken back to basics (though not at all mechanically so) with the movement of those most successful of organisms, bacteria

Let's get that misquote out of the way. Wilkinson has Rutherford say 'physics is the only science; all else is stamp collecting.' That change of wording makes it easy to misunderstand Rutherford's intent, which was to highlight that most of science outside of physics was about collecting and organising information, rather than using induction to derive laws and meaning. He didn't say the rest wasn't science, just that it was a different (and by implication lesser) part. Wilkinson goes on to suggest that Rutherford implied that nature was unruly and opaque to order - but that was clearly not Rutherford's intent; his comment was about what scientists did, not about the fields per se.

While we're in the negative, the only reason I didn't give Restless Creatures an effortless five stars was inconsistency. The best chapters are some of the most outstanding science writing I've read this year and I loved them. This comes out, perhaps not surprisingly, in a fascinating exploration of why we have our upright two-legged gait - but also, for example, in a wonderful chapter on a part of the natural world we tend not to associate with movement - plants. Yet as Wilkinson shows, not only are there exceptions like the venus fly trap, most plants make use of movement (sometimes with the motive power provided cunningly by other organisms) to spread their seed and avoid everything happening in the same place. However, there were a few places where the writing lost its impetus and became a little turgid. This tended to happen, funnily, when physics came into the story - the explanations of the mechanics of movement, for example with a bird's wing, were hard to digest, while the chapter 'A Winning Formula' on the detailed mechanisms involved in producing a biological form was by far the least readable.

Even if you feel the urge to skip those parts, though, the rest of the book is so well worth it that I very much enjoyed it. Wilkinson takes a new, refreshing look at the nature of living things, particularly animals, and convinces even the most sceptical reader of the importance of locomotion to both the form those animals take and their remarkable range and variety. For this reason, I can heartily recommend adding this book to your collection.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …