Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Furry Logic - Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher *****

The title of Furry Logic doesn't give much away. With nothing more to go on, I would have guessed that this play on the IT/OR concept of 'fuzzy logic' was a book about animal psychology. But the subtitle reveals it's something quite different: the physics of animal life.

This is a clever move. It's always difficult to find a new way of looking at a perennial topic like biology, but to do so by exploring the way that animals exploit physics, from cats to dragons, gives genuine insights into an otherwise well-trodden subject.
By bringing in all kinds of physics, from simple mechanics, through electromagnetism and light, to quantum theory, we see the ways that animals make use of the possibilities that physics offers to survive and thrive. Sometimes the details are pleasingly small and domestic. I found, for instance, the comparison of the way cats and dogs drink water (neither is able to suck it up as we can) delightful, particularly in the sophisticated approach of the cat. (And speaking of cats, we discover that the fearsome komodo dragon only has a bite as strong as a pet cat's.)

From turtles' ability to navigate the oceans through to the way that shared body heat can be actively manipulated by snakes and the varied non-audio communication methods of insects (not to mention why elephants stand with one foot off the ground), we see the animal kingdom at its most fascinating. At the end of the book, the authors make a fairly obvious but worthwhile point that making use of physics in this way doesn't imply an understanding of physics, but rather a trial and error discovery of what helps survival - but it doesn't make the stories any less interesting.
The only problem with an approach like this, covering different aspects of physics in different chapters is that the contents can seem to be more of a list than a meaningful narrative - but generally that isn't an issue here. If I'm honest, I got more than little bored with the mantis shrimp - the entry was far too long - but that apart, there was plenty cropping up to provide new wonders and interest.
One other small moan is over humour. Editors nearly always extract the majority of the attempts at humour from the books I write, and now I can see why. It's not as easy as it looks, and there's a distinct tendency to wince-making material, particular when scientists venture into the field. So, for instance, we read about the activity of some snakes that it involves 'lots of sex and a soup├žon of gender-swapping. Not among Shine and his colleagues the scientists studying them], we must stress, but the snakes themselves.' It's groan-worthy, but tolerable.
Overall this was a fresh and enjoyable take on an aspect of the workings of animals that is rarely covered - a worth addition to the popular science hall of fame.
Review by Brian Clegg

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