Light science reading that informs while it entertains—good for dipping into and out of.




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.

Pub Date: Jan. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4729-1409-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury Sigma

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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