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Shapes – Philip Ball ***

This is a bit of an oddity, in that Philip Ball has taken an earlier book (The Self-Made Tapestry), split it into three, of which this is one part, and updated it – but going on what’s in this book it was a good move, as there’s plenty to be going on with. (The other parts are Branches and Flow.)
A lot of the content is driven by an early twentieth century work, On Growth and Form by the Scottish zoologist D’Arcy Thompson. Thompson’s thesis was that the new-fangled Darwinian thinking was all very well, and not incorrect, but it wasn’t the right explanation for many of the natural forms of things, which were more driven by the physics and chemistry of the processes that made them than any evolutionary adaptation. Ball doesn’t always agree with Thompson, but primarily demonstrates this again and again from the shape of beehive cells to the patterns on animals’ fur.
There’s a lot to like here. This whole aspect of why, for instance, a snail’s shell is a particular shape, with a certain pattern on it is not something many of us think of, but it needs explaining once you it occurs to you. I particularly liked the strange way that some cicadas seem to benefit from a very strange pattern, finding survival benefit from having a life cycle that is a prime number of years. We also see quite a lot on the strange oscillating chemical reactions that change colour or produce shifting patterns time and again.
Unfortunately, though the subject is excellent, Ball’s prose, which starts off very approachable, gets a bit bogged down and stuffy in later parts of the book. There’s too much technical detail on some of the processes and the whole thing gets a trifle dull and textbook like. This is a shame after an excellent opening. It will, however, make an excellent introduction for any one hoping to study more on the subject.
Review by Peter Spitz


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