Skip to main content

Secret Worlds - Martin Stevens ****

An often-intriguing exploration of animal senses - both those familiar to us and (arguably most interestingly) those outside our human experience, such as the detection of electrical and magnetic fields. In each chapter, Martin Stevens gives us a wide range of examples of a particular sense in everything from spiders to bats, from naked mole rats to platypuses.

I have to confess I enjoy a good surprising science factoid - and there are a good number of these. I particularly liked the discovery that some bats' echolocation sounds are so loud that, if we were able to hear them they would be louder than a pneumatic drill (my comparison - he tells us the decibel level).

The book's only real failing is suffering from the biological science writing trap that was underlined by Rutherford's infamous dig 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' Although there are plenty of places where Stevens explores why something happens, there's also an awful lot of cataloguing here. So we discover that this species does this, while another species does that and so on. Occasionally I did suffer a little from being hit with too many examples and not enough narrative or explanatory science.

Having said that, there is much to engage the reader here. I particularly enjoyed the final two chapters on magnetic sensing and 'sensing in the Anthropocene.' The magnetic side was interesting because there are two competing theories as to how this is achieved, and there is often most to get your teeth into when there is scientific debate (the outcome between the two main theories here might be 'it's a bit of both'). The last chapter, on how humans have changed the environment in ways that affect animal senses (both in bad and good ways), is clearly covering a major interest for Stevens and is particularly fascinating.

All in all, an interesting and thoughtful contribution. It's a little confusing as Stevens had another book out less than four months before this one called Life in Colour - How Animals See the World which only covers the vision aspect of animal senses (I presume) - but the breadth of coverage of Secret Worlds gives it more of a substantial feel.



Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under