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.
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…