Skip to main content

The Lives of Ants – Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon *****

We’re in the habit of moaning about OUP popular science because it’s often the case they have great subjects, but written by academics making the books often poor to read. The recommendation is that they get their academics to link up with a writer, and in effect that is what has happened here, as the book is a translation (probably from French) – and benefits hugely, because unlike many of its fellows it is a joy to read.
It would be ironic if that enhanced readability were coupled with a less than inspiring subject – but not here. The subject is, as it says on the tin, the lives of ants, and they are truly incredible. At risk of sounding like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may think you know about ants, but that’s nothing when you see the sheer variety and complexity of ant life. The different species indulge in all sorts of behaviours, from rearing insect ‘cattle’ to capturing slaves and invading others’ nests and pretending to be of that species. We discover a queen ant of one species that spends its life riding on the back of a bigger queen from a different species. And then there are the ants that grow crops, the different ways the queens operate, the unusual sexual practices – in one species the males clone themselves as well as the queens (the workers are more normally produced), the only known creature in which a male is capable of this.
It’s simply stunning. I was slightly puzzled there wasn’t more about the super-organism concept, something that books about bees like The Buzz about Bees and The Super-Organism cover in a lot of detail. If the authors don’t think ants are a super-organism – i.e. a nest is effectively one creature, with the different insects acting almost like cells in a human’s body – then they should say so, and why. If they do think ants are a super-organism it ought to have been given more coverage. There is a passing reference to ‘swarm intelligence’ which may be the same concept, but it only really comes in the section on robots with ant-like behaviour, in itself an interesting bit of work, but not the main theme of the book.
I only have two other slight moans. One is that too long is spent on something that’s clearly of more interest to the author than the reader. This looks at the percentage of genetic relationship two ants have to each other on how this effects the way the ants treat each other. It goes on a bit. The other complaint is a simple factual error. We are told that ten million billion ants averaging three milligrams per ant weights roughly the same as the whole human population. Some basic arithmetic shows this to be wrong. There are around 6 billion people in the world – let’s make it 5 for ease of calculation. So that’s 2 million ants per person. Two million lots of three milligrams is six kilos. Now I know there are a lot of babies in the world, but there’s no way the average human being weighs six kilos – this is almost an order of magnitude out.
These are minor gripes, though, in what is a riveting book about a fascinating subject.
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…