Thursday, January 5, 2023

Book Recommendation

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Nature, Wildlife, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

This is a strong book recommendation. Gracefully written, it is one to be savored and revisited. I make no attempts at reviewing it but include a few comments. It is a book as Andrea Wulf (The Invention of Nature) notes on the dust cover, one of "buckets of wonder."

Take it from there.

All critters, i.e., all living organisms live, as Ed Yong tells us (An Immense World, Random House) in bubbles, sensory bubbles.

The book is about how organisms perceive the world. In one word, differently from us. Our tendency is to think that many organisms perceive it as we do and this greatly limits our understanding and appreciation of the "others" with which we share this magnificent planet.

Yong discusses the pioneering work of zoologist Jacob von Uexkull (1909) who described these sensory bubbles as the organisms Umwelt. It means environment, but Yong calls much needed attention to what Uexkull meant: "an Umwelt is specifically the part of those surroundings that an animal can sense and experience--its perceptual world world (my emphasis).

The idea of the Umwelt was, Yong writes, "radical at the time." I think if you read Yong's book, you can, through the references and scientists get an idea of when it became a mainstream research area, years after its first description.

Yong quotes Uexkull's comparison of  "an animal's body to a house. 'Each house has a number of windows , which open onto a garden: a light window, a sound window, an olfactory window, a taste window, and a great number of tactile windows. Depending on the manner in which these windows are built, the garden changes as it is seen from the house. By no means does it appear as a section of a larger world. Rather, it is the only world that belongs to the house--it [Umwelt], The garden that appears to our eye is fundamentally different from that which presents itself to the inhabitants of the house.'"

The book is about."about animals as animals" (not as models and other motivations for studying them) and how they slice and dice the environment. It is also a book on how scientists do science, how they design experiments, how they challenge their own thinking, how they selected a particular research organism - some love them like no other organism* - to spend a career researching them as well as the history of science.
Yong closes with a discussion on threatened sensescapes: quiet and the dark of night. Our increasingly lighted lands have deep and widespread effects, e.g., bird migration (survival as well as navigation), survival of newly hatched sea turtle, and pollination of plants. Yong writes that "The boundaries of our own Umwelt corral our ability to understand the Umwelten of others." Researcher Travis Longcore adds an emphasis: "'We too quickly forget that we don't perceive the world in the same way as other species, and consequently, we ignore impacts that we shouldn't."

One of the charges of The Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service (NPS) is "to safeguard the United States' natural soundscapes." This first required mapping them and Kurt Fristrup and his colleagues found that human activity has doubled the background noise levels in 63% of protects spaces, and increased them tenfold in 21 percent" (~500 sites around the nation).

This affects animal calls and songs (how far they can be heard, how loud they now have to be), the timing of morning bird choruses, reproduction in birds (not being able to attract a mate, communication in whales (distances--their calls once stretched from one ocean border to another),and life history features of sea organisms. Yong notes the dimensions of this problem writing that "personal responsibility cannot compensate for societal responsibility.

It surprised me to learn that Jakob von Uexkull wrote a second book that included this observation "about the Umwelt of the astronomer." This is what he said. "'Through gigantic optical aids,' our eyes 'are capable of penetrating outer space as far as the most distant stars. In its [Umwelt], suns and planets circle at a solemn pace.' The tools of astronomy," Yong notes, "can capture stimuli that no animal can naturally sense--X-rays, radio waves, and gravitational waves from colliding black holes. They extend the human Umwelt across the extent of the Universe and back to its very beginning (emphasis added).

Near the end, Yong points out one of our talents, namely the "ability to dip into other Umwelten is our greatest sensory skill." Take a moment to let that sink in. At the end of the book, Yong writes about this skill and its gift to us. "We may not ever know what it is like to be an octopus, but at least we know octopuses exist, and that their experiences differ from ours. Through patient observation, through the technologies at our disposal, through the scientific method, and, above all, through our curiosity and imagination, we can try to step into their worlds. We must choose to do so, and to have that choice is a gift. It is not a blessing we have earned, but it is one we must cherish."

Yong is a writer I deeply admire and so do other science writers. "What would we do without Ed Yong?," asks Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) in another dust jacket quote. By the way, all of the dust jacket quotes were useful, each has a sense of authenticity, of the writer having read the book and each provides an angle or angles that told me something about the book. So read them, too.

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