27 November 2022

Book report

Posted by Callan Bentley

An Immense World, by Ed Yong

Pulitzer Prize winner Ed Yong’s second book has arrived, and it’s about animal senses. Early on, he introduces the concept of the Umwelt as a way of thinking about the totality of an individual organism’s sensory perceptions. You can smell, taste, hear, touch, and see, for instance, but you can’t sense ultraviolet light, or infrasound, or magnetic fields. Many other animals can – and so their Umwelten are different from yours. What is it like to be a bat? Yong explores this question further than Thomas Nagel was able to, and it’s a fascinating journey. Yong writes with confidence, empathy, and thoughtful consideration. He visits the laboratories and field sites of dozens of biologists who are probing the limits of animal senses, and comes into direct contact with diverse creatures – otters and star-nosed moles, moths and songbirds and octopuses — and bats. On the whole, the book is a very refreshing read, full of wonder and humor as well as sober appreciation for the perspectives of others. One thing I’ll note however in the way of criticism: about 1/10th of the book is footnotes! There are a tremendous number of tangential comments or quirky insights or tantalizing connections that don’t fit into the main sweep of the narrative, and Yong definitely invokes The Footnote as a tool for resolving that conundrum, over and over again!

The Catskill Delta, edited by Donald Woodrow and William Sevon

A Geological Society of America special “paper” (#201), this volume includes 17 papers (and one abstract without the paper!), all about various aspects of the middle- to upper-Devonian stratigraphy and paleontology of the Catskill clastic delta in the Appalachian Basin. I read it last weekend on the porch, enjoying delving into paper after paper about a common theme, all that sand and mud shed off the Acadian Orogen. This isn’t the typical sort of light reading I’d choose for a sunny Saturday afternoon, but a colleague who recently retired gifted me a box full of books and maps and posters, and there are some real gems in there amid the dust and dross. I’ve been thinking about the Acadian Orogeny more over the past year as I try to synthesize my geological experiences last summer in Maine with other regional data. I’m trying to put together a coherent “case study” on the Acadian for my free, online Historical Geology text”book,” and this volume stimulated my thinking about the clastic signature of that mountain-building event. Of particular interest were the black shales that are now the source of so much natural gas in places like western Pennsylvania.

The 1619 Project, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

A collection of essays (and even some short fiction and poetry) that reframes American history in light of the practice of chattel slavery. Starting in 1619 in Jamestown, British colonists (and later their political descendants, Americans) enslaved Africans, and that isn’t just an incidental historical act that can be swept under the rug because it makes modern Americans uncomfortable. Instead, Hannah-Jones and her coauthors argue, it is the central fact of American culture and governance, and at the very heart of our nation’s story. Despite the abolition of slavery, the cruelty and division it fostered are (forever??) baked into the American experience. This is a book that doesn’t flinch from that perspective, but explores it deeply and thoughtfully. The essays included explore politics, economics, capitalism, citizenship, and justice, all putting slavery front and center, where it makes sense in explaining myriad features of the modern American experience. The book argues that this is proper and necessary to really get how this country functions. American history didn’t start in 1776, Hannah-Jones and her co-authors assert, it started in 1619.

Some Assembly Required, by Neil Shubin

The author of the superlative Your Inner Fish (and the underwhelming sequel The Universe Within) returns with a third book. I loved it – it delves into evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo) and sources of evolutionary novelty (the grist for natural selection’s mill) that are distinct from mere point mutations. Jumping genes, endosymbioses, viruses inserting their code into the middle of our code, changes in embryo timing – it’s complicated. But the past several hundred years, and particularly the past 75, have led to astounding insights that show us how genes manifest in the building of bodies. Shubin does a great job profiling key scientists whose thoughtful observations and clever experiments revealed key mechanisms by which these mechanisms functioned outside the basic “central dogma” of modern evolutionary theory. The story is more complicated than we had supposed, but its complications are fascinating and insightful. Top notch science writing by Shubin. Highly recommended.

The Belt Series in Montana, by Clyde P. Ross

Another “paper” that’s really a book. This one is USGS “professional paper 346,” published in 1963. As with the previous volume, it’s one that I recently “inherited” from a colleague who retired. I find the Belt Supergroup fascinating and enticing, and I read this 112 page volume cover to cover. It maybe be more than half a century old, but the Belt is older! It holds up very well, and I found particularly fascinating the long and inconclusive discussion of whether the Belt represents “marine” or “lacustrine” deposition, as well as the extensive listing of Belt-age equivalents in other parts of the North American continent, and what light they can shed on the Belt. I found inspiration here in making deliberate visits to some of these Mesoproterozoic strata that I haven’t yet seen, and thinking about the different world in which they were laid down.