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An Immense World
by Ed Yong
GENRE: Nonfiction, Science
The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every kind of animal, including humans, is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of our immense world.
In An Immense World, Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth’s magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and even humans who wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile’s scaly face is as sensitive as a lover’s fingertips, that the eyes of a giant squid evolved to see sparkling whales, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries that remain unsolved.
Funny, rigorous, and suffused with the joy of discovery, An Immense World takes us on what Marcel Proust called “the only true voyage . . . not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.”
Ed Yong is a British-American science journalist. He reports for The Atlantic, and is based in Washington, DC.
For his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ed won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism; the George Polk Award for science reporting; the Benton Award for distinguished public service; the Victor Cohn Prize for medical science reporting, the Neil and Susan Sheehan Award for investigative journalism; the John P. McGovern Award from the American Medical Writers’ Association; and the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for in-depth reporting. He was also a two-time finalist for the National Magazine Award in public service.
He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers—An Immense World, about the extraordinary sensory worlds of other animals; and I Contain Multitudes, about the amazing partnerships between animals and microbes. An Immense World won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and was listed as one of the top books of the year by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, the Economist, People, Barack Obama, and more than 30 other lists.
Prior to joining the Atlantic, Ed’s writing also featured in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, the New York Times, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and other publications. He regularly does talks and interviews, and his TED talk on mind-controlling parasites has been watched by over 1.9 million people. His work has appeared in three editions of the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, which he then guest-edited in 2021.
Ed cares deeply about accurate, nuanced, and empathetic reporting; clear and vivid storytelling; and social equality. He writes about everything that is or was once alive, from the quirky world of animal behaviour to the equally quirky lives of scientists, from the microbes that secretly rule the world to the species that are blinking out of it, from the people who are working to make science more reliable to those who are using it to craft policies. His stories span 3.7 billion years, from the origin of life itself to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is married to Liz Neeley, founder of Liminal Creations, and is parent to Typo, a corgi. He has a Chatham Island black robin named after him. - Author's website
In I Contain Multitudes (2016), science writer Yong exquisitely explored the teeniest domains of life, microbiomes. Now he sets his sights on sensory biology and animal behavior. Umwelt is the term used to describe the distinctive sensory experience of any particular creature. The “sensecapes” of different animals can be dominated not just by vision, smell, taste, touch, or sound but also heat, flow, and even magnetoreception. The menagerie of critters and their unique perceptual abilities Yong examines here include the platypus with a bill that detects electric fields, sand scorpions that rely on surface vibrations to hunt prey, the echolocation prowess of bats and dolphins, the ultrafast vision of killer flies, and the outstanding olfaction of elephants. The facts are frequently astonishing. For example, the majority of insects appear to be deaf. Pain is referred to as the “unwanted sense,” and naked mole-rats are relatively impervious to some types of it. Yong’s writing is empathetic, impeccably researched, imaginative, and entertaining. The tongue of a slithering rattlesnake “turns the world into both map and menu” whereas catfish are depicted as Daliesque “swimming tongues.” Yong worries about humanity’s “ecological sins,” as sensory pollution— noise, night lighting, chemicals—is ubiquitous. Yong’s scientific curiosity and concern for the natural world are contagious. This is “sense”-ational reading.
Pulitzer-winning journalist Yong (I Contain Multitudes) reveals in this eye-opening survey animals’ world through their own perceptions. Every animal is “enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble,” he writes, or its own “perceptual world.” Yong’s tour covers vision (mantis shrimp have “12 photoreceptor classes”), sound (birds, researchers suggest, hear in a similar range as humans but they hear faster), and nociception, the tactile sense that sends danger signals (which is so widespread that it exists among “creatures separated by around 800 million years of evolution”). There are a wealth of other senses outside the standard five: sea turtles have two magnetic senses, electric fish generate currents to “sense their surroundings” as well as to communicate with each other, and the platypus’s sensitive bill gives it what scientists think may be “electrotouch.” Yong ends with a warning against light and sound pollution, which can confuse and disturb animals’ lives, and advocation that “natural sensescapes” ought to be preserved and restored. He’s a strong writer and makes a convincing case against seeing the world as only humans do: “By giving in to our preconceptions, we miss what might be right in front of us. And sometimes what we miss is breathtaking.” This is science writing at its best. (July)
In his 1974 essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that other animals experience a world utterly foreign to us, one nearly impossible to describe. In this follow-up to I Contain Multitudes, Yong, a staff reporter for the Atlantic who won a Pulitzer in 2021 for his reporting on Covid-19, mostly follows the traditional popular science format (travel the world, interview experts), but he takes a different, realistic, and utterly fascinating approach, emphasizing that every organism perceives only a tiny slice of the world accessible to its senses. A tick searching for blood is exquisitely sensitive to body heat, the touch of hair, and the odor of butyric acid from skin. The tick doesn’t willfully ignore the surrounding plants and animals; it doesn’t know that they exist. This involves the zoological term umwelt, the German word for environment that refers to what an animal can sense: its perceptual world. The human umwelt includes excellent vision, tolerable hearing, mediocre smell (but better than dog enthusiasts claim), some chemical sensitivity (mostly in the nose and taste buds), a touch of echolocation, and no ability to detect electromagnetic fields. In a dozen chapters, Yong delivers entertaining accounts of how animals both common and exotic sense the world as well as the often bizarre organs that enable them to do so. “There are animals with eyes on their genitals, ears on their knees, noses on their limbs, and tongues all over their skin,” writes the author. “Starfish see with the tips of their arms, and sea urchins with their entire bodies. The star-nosed mole feels around with its nose, while the manatee uses its lips.” Building on Aristotle’s traditional five senses, Yong adds expert accounts of 20th-century discoveries of senses for echoes, electricity, and magnetism as well as perceptions we take for granted, including color, pain, and temperature.
One of the year’s best popular natural histories.
by Peter Wohlleben
The best-selling author of The Hidden Life of Trees presents a revelatory exploration of the diverse emotional intelligence of animals as demonstrated in vibrant stories about loving pigs, cheating magpies, scheming roosters and more.
by Lucy Cooke
An uproarious tour of some of the basest insticts and vice-related mysteries of the animal world includes profiles of drunken moose, cheating penguins, lazy worker ants, castrating hippos and porn-peddling Chinese pandas.
by Carl Safina
Weaving decades of field observations with exciting new discoveries about the brain, Carl Safina's landmark book offers an intimate view of animal behavior to challenge the fixed boundary between humans and nonhuman animals.