Skip to main content

Natural Acts – David Quammen ****

Somewhat over half of this book dates back more than twenty years, while the final 130 pages or so are twenty-first century additions. It’s a collection of (mostly) short pieces – and this is something David Quammen does superbly well. There are occasions when he seems to realize how well he does it, but apart from this occasional smugness it’s excellent writing where the topic interests him – patently obvious when he’s talking about wildlife.
Sometimes the approach can take you by surprise – speaking in defence of the mosquito, for example – and always there’s something to delight. I particularly liked the piece that puts across the idea that crows are bored underachievers, and the paean to the bat.
In his earlier writing, there’s only set of pieces where the lustre fades a little, and that’s when he talking about geology rather than natural history. It clearly doesn’t work for him quite the same way.
When I got onto the more modern section, I thought that Quammen was suffering from a literary version of that old chestnut that scientists do all their best work before they’re thirty. The first couple of pieces are tedious and really don’t live up to the electric prose of the earlier sections. But the realization comes with much better pieces further on that it’s not the date that’s the issue, it’s the length. Quammen’s writing style is absolutely perfect for a short, quickly digested piece. When you get to these longer articles – 28 and 49 pages – the whole delicate construction disappears and we’re left with something that isn’t in the same league. But don’t be put off – there are more short pieces to come.
Despite the disappointment raised by those couple of relative clunkers, the collection as a whole is engrossing and the short pieces are just the right length to capture the interest without ever flagging. The older pieces are as fresh, if not fresher, than the newer ones. All-in-all, just as Quammen clearly enjoys exploring the natural world, you will enjoy exploring the world of his writing.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…