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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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