How animals are designed to make the most efficient use of physical principles in their struggle to survive.
Physics World magazine editor Durrani and Kalaugher, who has a doctorate in materials science, admit to “anthropomorphising” animal behavior in the interest of telling a good story, a smart decision that allows them to amply demonstrate how animals succeed in making physics work for them. Each of the chapters focuses on a specific area of physics—Heat, Forces, Fluids, Sound, Electricity and Magnetism, and Light—and the authors clearly explain the physical principles involved. Many of the examples they provide may seem counterintuitive. For example, a wet dog expends less energy removing moisture by shaking its fur than if it simply waited for the water to evaporate. This is because the cooling effect of evaporation requires the dog to expend energy to maintain its body temperature. As the authors write, “dog fur minimizes heat loss through conduction and convection. But if that fur is wet, the animal has to burn precious energy to stay warm enough for its body to work. No pooch is that daft, as you’ll know to your soggy cost if you’ve stood next to a dog that’s just bounded out of a river.” Though readers likely don’t frequently think about hornets, they will be surprised to learn that Oriental hornets have a natural solar cell that allows them to convert sunbeams into electricity. Durrani and Kalaugher also speculate about the multipurpose role of the peacock’s tail in the mating ritual. The colorful plumage is a sign of vitality that attracts mate-seeking females. Furthermore, recordings reveal that by rustling their tails, they make “a quieter, and more pleasing, shivering noise,” that accompanies their more raucous mating-related vocalizations. Another offbeat factoid—in a book full of them—is the way that elephants raise one foot from the ground in order to use their other three to triangulate vibrations.
Light science reading that informs while it entertains—good for dipping into and out of.