29 January 2023

The Mountain in the Sea, by Ray Nayler

This is a fun new novel. Like Ted Chiang’s Arrival or Carl Sagan’s Contact, it’s a “first contact” story, except the alien intelligence is homegrown: a newly-evolved species of octopus living in waters of the Con Dao archipelago in near-future Vietnam. How do they think, given their radically different bodies, environments, and umwelt? Many of the things I’ve been reading over the past few years (Ed Yong’s An Immense World, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds, and all those books about artificial intelligence) seem to feed naturally into the architecture of this techno-thriller. One of the characters is an android, humanity’s first such, and so interacting with them is also a form of “first contact.” The android’s mindscape is compared to the octopuses’ for insight. There is also a significant thread in the book of ecological devastation, particularly in the marine realm. The future world that author Ray Nayler depicts is pretty grim, beset with drones left and right doing nefarious things, and ocean fishing accomplished by AI-run trawlers that deploy enslaved people to process the fish. The pace is excellent, the characters fresh (a Mongolian security agent was one of my favorites, as she speaks with a translator unit that creates hilariously clipped speech), and the topics explored truly fascinating. Very enjoyable and thus: recommended!

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23 January 2023

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte

A terrifically told update on dinosaur paleoecology and evolution by an enthusiastic practitioner of the Mesozoic arts. Brusatte paints himself as coming of age in the time of Jurassic Park, an obsessed ‘fanboy’ of dinosaurs and celebrity paleontologists, who then matures and innovates through an impressive series of field experiences and methodological devices to become a professor, author, and leader in the field. Brusatte’s own story isn’t the centerpiece of the book, but it is a prominent thread in the weave of the book’s narration. It makes the book unique. But overall, the volume is a chronological recounting of what we know about the history of dinosaurs, told utilizing the most up-to-date insights from science. Brusatte disassembles various hoary old myths and emphasizes modern conclusions such as feathers, childcare, and the relationship of theropods to birds. Interestingly, he doesn’t dwell much at all on the question of warm-bloodedness (homeothermy), but the other issues get ground in to the point where (at least with birds), I found myself getting tired of the repetition. I have spent a bit of time thinking and learning about dinosaurs, so I’m not sure that I got too many “new” insights out of this volume, but it was certainly and enjoyable read – almost manic in its ardor. That counts for something – the excitement is infectious! One thing I think I’ve taken away from it is a better understanding of evolutionary differences between major regions of the globe. For instance, sauropods being prominent for a time in North America, but then declining here while they were still abundant in South America. Brusatte does a great job of reminding you what was happening elsewhere, as he paints a picture of any given innovation that is time/space specific. Another take-away for me: I now better understand the Triassic, a time when crocodilian-line archosaurs were in competition with the earliest dinosaurs, and winning handily. The dominance of dinosaurs didn’t come until after the end-Triassic extinction. Brusatte effectively presents a clearer picture of the ecological dynamics of the post-Permian landscape, but demonstrates that paleontologists were challenged by the similarity in skeletal morphology of the two groups. There was apparently some pronounced evolutionary convergence at work. Dinosaur-like crocodilians, and even crocodile-like dinosaurs. To me, that was a new insight, and worth the read.

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21 January 2023

Plate Tectonics: a very short introduction, by Peter Molnar

The cover of the book.This slim volume (130 pages of ~10 point type) is the 425th in Oxford University Press’s vast series of dense little books about various subjects. Browsing the geology shelves at my college’s library this week, I saw it and thought I might as well check it out. I’ve shifted through the years in what I put weight on when teaching plate tectonics, and I always appreciate reading/hearing/seeing what different professionals choose to emphasize. One thing that I really appreciated about Chapter 2, on seafloor spreading and magnetic anomalies, was short descriptions of key papers early on in the revelation of seafloor spreading (late 1960s) that were, it turned out, scientific stumbles. One of these issues was the “polluting” signal that came from a submarine seamount’s magnetic signature superimposed over the background seafloor’s pattern of magnetic stripes, creating confusion. Another had to do with the fact that some seafloor in the Pacific had originally formed in the southern hemisphere (and thus had an “upward” vector to its ‘normal’ magnetic inclination, but later moved into the northern hemisphere (where we would expect a “downward” vector to its magnetism during the same periods of a ‘normal’ magnetic field. Sorting this mistake out allowed the measured Pacific seafloor magnetic stripe record to make a lot more sense. Another area of emphasis for Molnar is explaining fracture zones, and the debate over whether they represented strike-slip faulting of the transcurrent or transform variety (with opposite kinematic implications). That was great, if a little dense. It was an excellent encapsulation of data acquisition, interpretation, testing, iteration, and reversal, followed by convincing the majority of geologists that their initial instincts were exactly backwards! One additional thing I will mention: Molnar regards plate tectonics as an idea which does a great job specifically of explaining and making predictions about the oceanic lithosphere, but he pulls out continental tectonics as a separate beast. Despite the book ostensibly focusing on plate tectonics, he devotes a chapter to deformation in the continental crust, with the distinction being the rigidity of the plate. Oceanic plates see all the action at the edges (plate boundaries), while continents often see much more diffuse zones of deformation within their interiors. Witness the thousands-of-kilometer wide belts of scrunching and crunching that make up the Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, and Baikal rift in Asia, or the weirdness of the Basin and Range or Laramide Rockies in North America. According to Molnar, these aren’t due to plate tectonics, and require a separate explanation (he gets into the “jelly sandwich” model of the strength of the continental crust, and invokes flowing Camembert cheese as an analogy elsewhere). In other words, behavior that doesn’t approximate a “plate.” I guess that’s legitimate, but in a way it feels a bit like hair-splitting. An interesting read, and I think I’ll steal some of the book’s figures in my teaching.

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20 January 2023

Bird update January 2023

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Well, we are two-thirds of the way through January now, and I thought I might give an update about my birding. Usually I only do this once annually, but I’ve been diving deeper into the practice this year, and so I thought I would share a few thoughts. Maybe I’ll do this monthly in 2023?

I’ve been birding every day so far this year, sometimes submitting as many as four eBird ‘checklists’ per day. eBird informs me I’m on a “streak” (continuous days in a row of submitting checklists) that has bested all my previous “streaks.” In short, I’ve been putting in my time. Because I’ve been spending a lot of my free time engaged with the subject, I feel as if I’m getting better at it. Students, take note: the first thing you have to do to approach mastery of a subject is commit the time to thinking about it, engaging with it. I’m doing that for birds this year.

I’ve been pursuing the species reported in daily rare bird alerts in my county, and occasionally adjacent counties too. This has allowed me to “get” uncommon species for my list – like Eurasian wigeon and Loggerhead shrike. Sometimes it’s a bust, as with my ill-fated attempt to see Red crossbills in Shenandoah National Park on New Year’s Day. But it’s a good stimulus for getting out and paying attention.

Another related pursuit is going to check out places I haven’t checked out yet. I’ve lived in Charlottesville for 3 years now, and there are plenty of roads I see on a daily or weekly basis, but haven’t yet driven down to check out. On Google Maps, there are plenty of little green splotches indicative of public lands that I haven’t yet made the time to visit. I’m deliberately changing that, methodically visiting them, sometimes with my son in tow, sometimes solo. Some are hidden gems, some are shockingly dirty trash pits. But even the trash pits can yield birds!

I have also been more deliberate in bringing my camera with me when I bird. This can be a bit cumbersome, managing both it and my binoculars simultaneously, but I’ve decided that I want to have at least one decent photo of each species of bird I see in my county this year. Of course, photos are the most useful “proof” of seeing a rare species, and it’s hard to take a photo if you see the bird while the camera is sitting on a shelf at home. Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

The result of this investment of time and attention is that I’ve been racking up the species, and have risen through the “ranks” of birders on eBird’s “Top 100” list for my county. Buoyed by this early-in-the-year success, I’ve decided my goal is to stay in the top 10 for the county this year. I’ve been able so far to push my ranking as high as #2 (with 62 species), but ultimately I’ll be very happy if I can just keep up there in the upper 10% — running with the big dogs, as they say.

That’s it for now; I’ve articulated these goals in my mind; by setting down these thoughts here, I also publicly commit myself to them!

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19 January 2023

Miseducation: How climate change is taught in America, by Katie Worth

cover of the bookA quick read through a disheartening topic: journalist Katie Worth reports on the state of climate change education in the United States. There’s good news and there’s bad news in this slim volume. First, it’ll be no surprise to hear that many talented, dedicated educators are working hard to incorporate scientific thinking about climate into their teaching. They are inspiring! Worth briefly profiles a handful of these exemplary teachers, and documents some of the challenges they have faced. Second, unfortunately there are many challenges. That’s the bad news – Moneyed interests have successfully conflated climate science, evolutionary biology, and sometimes ‘science in general’ with anti-American ideas or blasphemous motivations. They have successfully worked to establish a sense of doubt, if not outright disbelief and hostility, in children educated in our public schools. I found it refreshing that Worth frames the various forces at work as manifesting in a stark inequity between science education in well-funded schools in states with liberal politics and poorly-funded schools in red states*. It’s not fair to the children of Oklahoma that they are deprived of clear messaging about the true state of climate science. We are familiar with the nation’s various inequities, for instance in wealth. But Worth makes the case that we have also fostered a system where there are inequities in comprehension of reality. She reviews the critical role that state teaching standards play, as well as how commercial textbook companies muddy the waters in their attempts to kowtow to states which make textbook adoption decisions on the state level. She examines efforts by fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks to provide misinformation to public school teachers and students, often by the same individuals who made names for themselves in the tobacco health crisis misinformation campaign of previous decades. She closes with an anecdote that is just gutting – some of the children who are being catastrophically impacted by climate change can’t even connect the dots to realize its reality is their reality. Grim.

* Wyoming bucks this trend in a clear and decisive way, and one of the chief complaints I have about Miseducation is that it doesn’t delve into why. This “exception to the rule” might be really insightful, but unfortunately Worth merely sweeps it under the rug as an anomaly.

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17 January 2023

Life’s Edge, by Carl Zimmer

Cover of the bookCarl Zimmer is a veteran science writer, a journalist who has been pumping out terrific popular natural history explorations for decades now. His latest explores the marginal zone between living and nonliving: Life’s Edge. I found it to be an interesting and enjoyable volume, entirely as I’ve come to expect from Zimmer. Biology is a science with an interesting conundrum at its heart – it’s not totally clear what qualifies as life. Various definitions have been proposed, but none of them is perfect. As a result, various practitioners employ different working definitions of life. The panoply of definitions share certain hallmarks, and Zimmer explores these hallmarks over the course of the book: homeostasis, metabolism, boundaries, reproduction, evolution. To me, this gets most interesting when the topic is the origins of life on this planet, but Zimmer also covers issues related to the cessation of life (death) in humans: brain-dead patients whose hearts still beat while machines move their lungs for them. And abortion gets some page-space too, in regard to the eternal question of when a human life can be said to begin. Laboratory experiments get descriptions in loving detail: the weirdness of “radiobes” and mobile drops of oil, David Deamer’s experiments with drying and re-wetting lipids as a plausible mechanism to organize the RNA World. A particularly odd experiment uses cells from human brains to make little blobs that can communicate electrically with their neighbors. But are they “alive”? What about red blood cells? They lack DNA and don’t reproduce, but at least have a metabolism. Viruses have DNA (or RNA) and reproduce, but cannot do it without hijacking an external cell. This pattern is duplicated in some fish: they essentially clone themselves, but require mating with another fish to start the process, even though none of the mate’s DNA is utilized or expressed. Wild anecdotes from the fringes of bread-and-butter biology! Each chapter is essentially a stand-alone science essay, but with enough connective tissue and references to previously covered characters and concepts that it feels cohesive as a book. Pretty interesting stuff.

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11 January 2023

Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver

Now here’s an interesting book: a retelling of David Copperfield (by Charles Dickens) but set in modern-day Appalachia, specifically Lee County, in the furthest-west tip of Virginia, where it makes a triangular insert between Kentucky and Tennessee. The arc of the original bildungsroman is a rags-to-riches tale set in Victorian England. Because of the physical and temporal distance between my current point in space-time and that of Copperfield, much of the poverty it depicts feels charming rather than shocking. But when those same dire circumstances are set in a modern context not far from where I live, it hits home in such a different manner. Frankly, it’s gutting. The coarse language, lack of education, poverty, breakdowns in families and social services, and in particular relentless drug use make for a very different reading experience. Kingsolver’s motivation may have been to bring focus to the ravages of widespread opioid addiction, and the book succeeds in that goal, but it’s no fun to read. The original novel was a delight – both in the way it was written, but also and most particularly in the incredible characters it portrayed: Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep, Mr. Peggoty, Barkis the coach driver, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and her companion Mr. Dick. That is a winning cast – each one its own literary flavor worth savoring. It chagrins me to report that the biggest disappointment of Demon Copperhead is that Kingsolver’s versions of these characters are nowhere near as compelling. The “translations” of the characters into the modern world is often cleverly done in terms of renaming them and giving them situation-appropriate dressings, but they don’t share the same soul as Dickens’ creations. They don’t pop. On the other hand, the exception is Demon Copperhead himself. He serves as the narrator of the book, and is more verbally distinct and “flavorful” than Dickens’s Copperfield narration. One thing that Kingsolver does very well is put small little errors into Copperhead’s speech that demonstrate his lack of worldliness. They are almost so subtle you could miss them, but it shows her mastery at crafting his essence. The character’s voice is astoundingly well developed, and that carries the novel.

So why would Kingsolver write this book? It’s a pretty astounding move, when you consider her track record of success in spinning up her own stories, that she would mimic the skeleton of one of the most celebrated novels of all time. The impetus for an accomplished writer to do such a thing appears to be a social conscience. If you’re in Kingsolver’s shoes, living in southwest Virginia, and you see a catastrophe unfolding in your community, how do you call the attention of the wider world to the immolation and suffering? She writes a novel. Given the sordid, sorrowful nature of the material, how do you keep people reading? One trick is to offer the assurance of a validation and redemption at the end – and knowing it’s based on on Copperfield might be just the trick to reassure readers that it will all be worth it by the final chapter. Via this story, she might be able to encourage society to address this forgotten, derided corner of the world. Wikipedia’s entry on Dickens reflects on the efficacy of his stories in providing motivational social commentary: “his fiction probably demonstrated its greatest prowess in changing public opinion in regard to class inequalities. He often depicted the exploitation and oppression of the poor and condemned the public officials and institutions that not only allowed such abuses to exist, but flourished as a result.” I think Kingsolver is driven toward a similar end. She personalizes addiction and makes it entirely plausible. The wisest and most grounded of her characters very clearly and blatantly pin the blame of Appalachia’s modern woes on Purdue Pharma. I came away from reading it with a more indelible sense of the chaos of modern living as teen in these depressed communities. It appears that the literati approves of her maneuver, and ratings of the book are high, but will it manifest any social impact? Will it translate into political action to improve the lot of those who dwell in post-coal Appalachia?

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1 January 2023

Yard list 2022

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It’s an annual tradition here on New Year’s Day to share my “yard list” for the previous year. This is a list of all the birds I’ve seen in my yard over the course of one calendar year, in chronological order. Last year’s list had 87 species. This year, I spent a lot of time birding, and I boosted the count to 114. The list is below, followed by a few thoughts:

  1. Mourning Dove
  2. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  3. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  4. Blue Jay
  5. American Crow
  6. Carolina Chickadee
  7. Tufted Titmouse
  8. White-breasted Nuthatch
  9. Carolina Wren
  10. Eastern Bluebird
  11. American Robin
  12. Cedar Waxwing
  13. American Goldfinch
  14. Dark-eyed Junco
  15. Song Sparrow
  16. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  17. Northern Cardinal
  18. Red-shouldered Hawk
  19. Pileated Woodpecker
  20. Northern Flicker
  21. White-throated Sparrow
  22. Downy Woodpecker
  23. European Starling
  24. Hermit Thrush
  25. Red-tailed Hawk
  26. Northern Mockingbird
  27. Turkey Vulture
  28. American Woodcock *
  29. Canada Goose
  30. Common Raven
  31. Winter Wren
  32. Black Vulture
  33. Bald Eagle
  34. Field Sparrow *
  35. House Finch
  36. Eastern Phoebe
  37. Eastern Meadowlark *
  38. Golden-crowned Kinglet
  39. Cooper’s Hawk
  40. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  41. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  42. Belted Kingfisher
  43. American Kestrel
  44. Brown Creeper
  45. Purple Finch
  46. Common Grackle
  47. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  48. Hooded Merganser
  49. Hairy Woodpecker
  50. Red-winged Blackbird
  51. Wood Duck
  52. Brown-headed Cowbird
  53. Pine Warbler
  54. Chipping Sparrow
  55. Rock Pigeon
  56. Fish Crow
  57. Eastern Towhee
  58. Great Blue Heron
  59. Brown Thrasher
  60. Tree Swallow
  61. Osprey
  62. Louisiana Waterthrush
  63. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  64. Green Heron
  65. Barn Swallow
  66. Palm Warbler
  67. Broad-winged Hawk
  68. Blue-headed Vireo
  69. Merlin *
  70. Wild Turkey *
  71. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  72. House Wren
  73. Wood Thrush
  74. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  75. Chimney Swift
  76. Spotted Sandpiper
  77. White-eyed Vireo
  78. Yellow-throated Vireo
  79. Red-eyed Vireo
  80. Orchard Oriole
  81. Baltimore Oriole
  82. Black-and-white Warbler
  83. Yellow Warbler
  84. Indigo Bunting
  85. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  86. Great Crested Flycatcher
  87. Ovenbird
  88. Eastern Kingbird
  89. Gray Catbird
  90. American Redstart
  91. Cape May Warbler
  92. Blue-winged Warbler
  93. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  94. Barred Owl
  95. Eastern Screech-Owl
  96. Common Yellowthroat
  97. Scarlet Tanager
  98. Eastern Wood-Pewee
  99. Veery
  100. Northern Parula
  101. Bay-breasted Warbler
  102. Canada Warbler
  103. Prairie Warbler
  104. Grasshopper Sparrow *
  105. Magnolia Warbler
  106. Acadian Flycatcher
  107. Worm-eating Warbler
  108. Blue Grosbeak
  109. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  110. Summer Tanager
  111. Great Egret *
  112. Red-headed Woodpecker *
  113. Black-throated Green Warbler
  114. Philadelphia Vireo

Thoughts and reflections:

  1. I made it a priority this year to spend time birding. I got into the habit of going for morning “bird walks” down a rural road near my house, sometimes doing 3 miles, sometimes 4, and sometimes 5 (roundtrip). While I walked, I used the eBird app on my smartphone to keep track of the birds I observed (“observed” = saw or heard). I’ve been resistant to eBird for years, but for some reason a year ago today I decided to dive in. I haven’t looked back. One advantage to the app is that it “gamifies” birding, with a list of the “top 100 eBirders” in a given state, county, or city – ranked by number of species seen (my county list for 2022 stands at 130 species). As spring migration came on, I was thrilled to see my name rising through the ranks, reaching as high as #11, though I’ve slipped back this fall, and ended the year at #28. I posted 254 species lists to eBird for my county over the course of the year.
  2. One key service that eBird offers is rare bird alerts – daily emails about unusual birds in a given area. I signed up for rare bird alerts for my county and surrounding counties, and have used them as motivation to go off on special missions to seek out a Loggerhead shrike, some Mississippi kites and Swallow-tailed kites, and a Surf scoter. (Those weren’t in my yard, and so they are not on the list above.) There have also been a couple of rare bird missions that fizzled out with no sightings – one, literally a wild goose chase.
  3. Another app that I utilized this year was Merlin, published by the Cornell Laboratory for Ornithology. Merlin has several functions, but the one I relied on and learned from the most was the “Sound ID” feature. Basically, this uses your phone’s microphone to listen for birds, and then provisionally identifies them by their distinctive calls or songs. It is a bit like magic, how effective it is. And there was an update to the software pushed out mid-year which made its performance even more impressive. It’s not perfectly accurate, but it’s pretty darned good. I found it to be an excellent “tutor” for training my ear for the subtleties of various songs.
  4. So I listened a lot this year. That’s different from previous years of birding – I made a point to really reach out with my auditory senses to probe the sonic landscape for avian signatures. I got better at it through practice. I still have a long way to go before I am “good at it,” but I’m much better at sound ID than I was a year ago.
  5. On eBird, I included birds I saw on my bird walks as part of my yard list. So I’ve got a yard list sensu stricto and a more permissive yard list sensu lato. I’ve added an asterisk (*) to the eight species above that were in the “sensu lato” category – i.e., never actually observed from the viewshed of my property, but observed on my daily walks from my property and back again.
  6. Because I traveled to Costa Rica over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the treat of seeing many of these “Virginia yard” species down there too – the neotropical migrants that spend the summer in Albemarle County spend their winters hanging out with toucans and laughing falcons in Central America. So cool! [Examples I noticed include: Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, and Spotted Sandpiper.]
  7. I joined the Piedmont Virginia Bird Club, and have benefitted from attending several trips on weekend mornings with their crew of dedicated, knowledgeable birders. I also had a student last semester (an active member of our Geology Club) who is an active, expert birder. He has taught me much also.
  8. As noted in my commentary from last year, my new home has better birding habitat than my old home – lower elevation, east of the Blue Ridge, more variety of field/forest/lake + ecotones between. I’m really grateful for that change; it’s a hoot to have such variety.
  9. Three species I had last year that I did not see this year are: Black-billed cuckoo, Common nighthawk, and Golden eagle.
  10. I’ve been doing the same feeders as at last year – hummingbird feeders in summer, and black sunflower in the winter. So that’s a variable that’s been more or less constant.

Happy new year!

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31 December 2022

On Writing, by Stephen King

This is a little book about writing by Stephen King, renowned author of 50+ best-selling novels. It’s mainly autobiographical, detailing King’s childhood, alcoholism, and being run down by a distracted driver, but also includes good general writing advice: Ditch the passive voice. Don’t use adverbs. Write solo in an effort to purge the story from your mind, then let it sit for some time and come back to it, looking with fresh eyes. Identify the themes you’ve rendered, and choose what to enhance and what to purge. For the initial writing, King advises closing the door and letting the story flow and grow unimpeded. You’re not engineering it, you’re discovering it. This stage of writing is an act he equates with excavating a newly discovered fossil. The point of this analogy is that the story is already extant, you (as writer) merely need to transcribe it. In other words, King advocates for a less intentional, more subconscious form of creativity. You just need to be present for the requisite amount of time. The intentional part comes later, after a rest and some space. I find this resonates with my own writing practice, though that’s been wholly in the realm of nonfiction. I’ve never really given any thought to writing stories myself, but this book makes the assumption that’s what its readers are after. On Writing stimulated me to wonder what stories I could produce that no one else has already done. It would be fun to find out — if only I had the time. An added bonus – there are multiple appendices listing excellent novels worth reading. I think I’ll Xerox this list, fold it up in my wallet, and then grab one or two every time I go to the library.

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29 December 2022

Platypus, by Ann Moyal

The platypus is extraordinary, and this is a book about how we came to know that. Written by a historian of Australian science, Platypus is subtitled, “The extraordinary story of how a curious creature baffled the world.”  Moyal recounts the first specimens being sent back to the intellectual centers of western Europe (London and Paris, principally) from Australia, the subsequent suspicions that it was a hoax of taxidermy, and then the real, slow science that progressed over the ensuing centuries. Once it was shown that the platypus’s bill had a fundamentally different structure from a duck’s, and that this was a real animal, it was time to name it. The most fundamental anatomical detail was the cloaca – the excretory ducts and reproductive anatomy all ended in “one hole” – hence the name Monotremata. It turns out the echidnas had this set-up too, though their life habits and external anatomy were markedly different. (Their taste, too, apparently – Moyal reports that Aboriginal Australians enjoyed eating echidna as a favorite meat, but eschewed the platypus.) Now the big question was: were platypuses oviparous or ovoviviparous? This means – did the females gestate their eggs within their body, or were the eggs laid externally? This question was important – no other mammals beyond the monotremes did either – but it was very difficult to answer, since the female platypuses and their young sequestered themselves out of sight in deep burrow complexes during the critical time. The book delves into the highbrow consternation that plays out in letters sent back and forth between Australian naturalists and heavyweights like Richard Owen and Charles Darwin back in civilization. Honestly, the book probably spends a bit too much time on this period of uncertainty (probably because it left a decades-long paper trail, and what historian can resist all that primary literature?). As a consequence, though, the book short-changes more recent scientific advances in platypus biology, such as the functioning of their amazing snouts as electrical detectors. (Try Ed Yong’s An Immense World for a more detailed write-up of that topic.)

PS – I learned of this book from a footnote in Elsa Panciroli’s Beasts Before Us, and I wanted to add a footnote of my own – that this is one of my favorite things to do is use mentions in one book (antecedents) to lead me to my next read. Footnotes are the hyperlinks of the era gone by!

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