Skip to main content

Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants – Robert Sullivan ****

In Meadowlands, Robert Sullivan brought us an entertaining tour of the largely ignored wild lands out the outskirts of New York. In Rats, he does the same same, not so much for an ignored location as an unwanted co-resident: the New York rat.
Sullivan’s style is to immerse himself in the subject, sometimes to an extent that many would consider obsessive. Night after night he visits a New York alleyway and watches the rat nightlife as the inhabitants of the dark side of the Big Apple pick their way amongst the ample discards of the restaurants that back onto the alley.
Along the way you will learn a lot (sometimes more than you want to know) about the rat and its relationship to human beings. And, this being Sullivan, you will also learn about a whole variety of things that spin off at a tangent from the topic of rats. You might be amazed to discover that plague, the same disease that caused such disasters in the middle ages, is not only still in existence, but is carried by wild animals in the US today. You might be surprised to learn of a nearly forgotten key character of the US revolutionary war, who was responsible for the first battle in the conflict, which took place on one of Sullivan’s rat sites. You will meet the exterminators and pest control operatives who have a lot of respect for the rat. And, if you enjoy Sullivan’s sometimes poetic, always warm narrative style, you will have a great time (and become something of a rat expert in your own right along the way).
After a time, Sullivan becomes fascinated by a large rat hole in his pet alley, which descends a huge distance into the basement, ironically, of the union of pest controllers. This subject, combining as it does the wry humour of the location of the hole, and Sullivan’s ability to enthuse about something few others could find interesting – and to make it something worth reading – is brilliant.
You have to admire the effort that went into this book. Sullivan’s methods are delightfully haphazard, but he really throws himself into the subject, never seeming to worry about the human dangers of spending many hours in dark New York alleyways (though he does occasionally worry about the rats a little). It’s a fascinating read, and though the subject may occasionally make your skin crawl, it’s highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …

Artificial Intelligence - Yorick Wilks ****

Artificial intelligence is one of those topics where it's very easy to spin off into speculation, whether it's about machine conciousness or AI taking over the world (and don't get me onto the relatively rare connection to robots - cover designer please note). All the experience of AI to date has been that it has been made feasible far slower than originally predicted, and that it faces dramatic limitations. So, for example, self-driving cars may be okay in limited circumstances, but are nowhere near ready for the commute home. Similarly, despite all the moves forward in AI technology, computers are so-so at recognising objects after learning from thousands of examples - sometimes fooled by apparently trivial surface patterning - where humans can recognise items from a handful of examples.

Even so, we can't deny that AI is having an influence on our lives and Yorick Wilks, emeritus professor of AI at the University of Sheffield, is ideally placed to give us a picture …

Apollo 11 - David Whitehouse *****

The problem with doing a book about the Apollo programme is that it's hard to find something that hasn't been said before - but with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing just weeks away, the publication of this elegant book is extremely timely, and science-reporting veteran David Whitehouse manages to make the story feel fresh, even if you're one of the just 20 per cent of the world population who were alive on the remarkable day in 1969.

Although he has worked a lot with New Scientist, Whitehouse was for many years a TV journalist, and that comes through in his impressively engaging prose as he takes us back to the origins of the US/USSR space race that would lead to the moon landing. He passes through the wartime aspects relatively quickly, but once the two superpowers are flexing their space technology muscles, Whitehouse achieves a near perfect balance between the far less-heard USSR side of the story and the US. This is probably the best bit of the whole bo…