Skip to main content

Dazzled and Deceived – Peter Forbes *****

Subtitled ‘Mimicry and camouflage’, this is a fascinating exploration of the use of visual trickery to disguise the nature of objects both in the living world and in the military. Along the way we trace the gradual growth of understanding of how creatures in the wild use mimicry to pretend to be what they aren’t (for example, imitating a poisonous creature, or an insect pretending to be a plant), or camouflage to become less visible against a particular background.
The two aspects of natural visual deceit that really struck me in reading it were the situations where something we all ‘know’ to be true isn’t – for instance, the chameleon uses its colour changing for display, not for camouflage – and in the incredible complexity of some butterfly mimicry where, for instance, the female of one species might look like any one of four very different nasty tasting butterflies.
What is also very engaging is the way that Peter Forbes carefully dissects the over-simple evolutionary idea of ‘the ones that looked more like the thing they were mimicking survived better’ to transform it into a modern understanding of the complex mechanisms behind such mimicry. All too often, the simplistic approach seems to apply too much choice to the concealed creature, as if it could decide to look like something else, where actually its ability to mimic depends on having certain characteristics (even if they weren’t previously used) already.
In the interlaced chapters on wartime camouflage, it is amazing just how amateurish early attempts at camouflage were – and how ‘facts’ about camouflage were derived with very little real experimental evidence. In the early days there were two opposing camps – the artists and the naturalists. Perhaps surprisingly given his background, Forbes doesn’t inherently side with the naturalists, but rather gives both sides credit for their contributions. Having said that, I’m surprised there isn’t more about the physics, as in the end camouflage is an attempt to manipulate photons – really neither artists nor naturalists were arguably the right people to sort it out.
There were one or two minor weaknesses. Because of this concentration on artists and naturalists, there was nothing about modern technology for hiding things, whether it’s stealth technology or invisibility cloaking. More significantly, although Forbes’s style is always approachable, I found a few of the biology sections a little heavy going. It wasn’t always easy to work out just what was supposed to be causing an effect. It’s not that Forbes doesn’t know his stuff, but rather than he knows it too well and doesn’t explain in quite enough detail to get the message across to the non-biologist. By comparison, the military sections were all very readable without that slight problem.
Overall a wonderful topic that really hasn’t been given enough coverage, especially given its importance in understanding the mechanisms of evolution better, and an excellent book. Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…