Explore and protect
ACROSS the globe, water went wild in 2021. Floods hit everywhere from Afghanistan to New Zealand, and the UK was affected by flash floods in the summer.
So, as we begin 2022, we should take heed of Erica Gies’s forthcoming book Water Always Wins: Going with the flow to thrive in the age of droughts, floods and climate change. She argues that, as our fields and cities sprawl, it is high time we learned to flow with water’s natural rhythms.
Chris Armstrong’s A Blue New Deal: Why we need a new politics for the ocean also calls for action. His priorities are the many challenges faced by those whose lives rely on the oceans. From the fate of nations being submerged by sea level rise to the exploitation of people working in fishing, plus the rights of marine animals to a future where they aren’t at risk of extinction, he points out that there is a lot to do.
Along with the growing urgency around climate change, there is a renewed interest in the way we tell the story of life on Earth. In The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the deep past to the uncertain present, environmental researcher Alison Richard traces the history of Earth’s fourth-biggest island, from its origins as a landlocked region of Gondwana to its emergence as an island home to huge, flightless birds and giant tortoises, and on to the modern-day developments that now threaten its biodiversity.
Palaeobiologist Thomas Halliday embraces a yet more epic timescale in Otherlands: A world in the making, touring the many living worlds that preceded ours, from the mammoth steppe in glaciated Alaska to the lush rainforests of Eocene Antarctica. If you have ever wondered what sound a pterosaur’s wings made in flight, this is the book for you.
Given that nearly all of the species that have lived on Earth are extinct, it might be an idea to think about what we want to preserve from our current biosphere. In Tickets for the Ark: From wasps to whales – how do we choose what to save?, ecologist Rebecca Nesbit wonders how we might decide the fate of Earth’s estimated 8.7 million species, including ourselves. Are native species more valuable than newcomers? Should some animals be culled to protect others? And is it really our place to decide?
As a species, we tend not to appreciate what we have lost until it is gone – or nearly gone. There are currently around 3 billion fewer birds in our skies than there were in 1970. And, perhaps not coincidentally, 2022 is a bumper year for books about birds.
Faced with a quite catastrophic decline in bird populations, some writers have focused on what birds mean to our lives. In Birds and Us: A 12,000 year history, from cave art to conservation, ornithologist Tim Birkhead laces his own remarkable travels with the story of humanity’s long fascination with birds. We have worshipped them as gods, worn their feathers and even attempted to emulate their method of flight.
Even without these cultural efforts, it seems that we share many of our behavioural traits with birds: our longevity, intelligence, monogamous partnerships, child-rearing habits, learning and language all have an avian equivalent, says behavioural ecologist Antone Martinho-Truswell. In The Parrot in the Mirror: How evolving to be like birds made us human, he shows how, from wildly different beginnings, the evolutionary stories of humans and birds have pushed both towards many of the same solutions. Sometimes we could do worse than to think of humans as featherless birds, he argues.
“Birds not only have a keen sense of smell, they tweak the scents of the oils they use when preening”
Might this kind of thinking inspire us to better orchestrate our rescue and preservation efforts? Patrick Galbraith’s In Search of One Last Song: Our disappearing birds and the people trying to save them crosses Britain on a journey that may well be his last chance to see some of our vanishing birds. On the way, he meets the people – reed cutters and coppicers, gamekeepers and conservationists – whose efforts sustain vital habitats for some of our rarest birds, but who often fall into misunderstanding and conflict with each other.
While some focus on saving birds, other books offer a chance to understand them better. Douglas J. Futuyma’s How Birds Evolve: What science reveals about their origin, lives, and diversity traces avian species through deep time to explain how they developed such a rich variety of parenting styles, mating displays and cooperative behaviours.
Evolutionary biologist Danielle J. Whittaker’s The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the science of avian scent adds a new feather to their cap with the news that birds not only have a keen sense of smell, but they tweak the scents of the oils they use when preening to attract mates and deter competitors. From tangerine-scented auklets to mossy-smelling juncos, birds are more fragrant than you might think.
Joys of the cosmos
Setting the wonders of Earth to one side, let’s examine the mysteries of space. In Black Holes: The key to understanding everything, physicists Brian Cox and Jeff Foreshaw use black holes, the most enigmatic objects in the universe, to explain some very profound physics. What is information? How could gravity and quantum theory one day be unified? And what actually is empty space?
If that isn’t mind-bending enough, try physicist Nicole Yunger Halpern’s book Quantum Steampunk: The physics of yesterday’s tomorrow. In it, she reimagines 19th-century thermodynamics through a modern, quantum lens, playing with the aesthetics of the 1800s through trains, dirigibles and horseless carriages. It is a physics book, but one that is as likely to attract readers of science fiction as those of popular science.
If you prefer a more straightforward approach, however, pick up physicist, writer and presenter Jim Al-Khalili’s The Joy of Science. It is a brief guide to leading a more rational existence. A little book of calm that is very welcome in these strange times.
Perhaps in response to these strange times, this year features several books that look at old notions in an entirely new way. In Am I Normal?: The 200-year search for normal people (and why they don’t exist), historian Sarah Chaney tells the surprisingly recent history of normal people.
Before the 1830s, says Chaney, the term was hardly ever used to describe human behaviour. But with the advent of IQ tests, sex studies, censuses and data visualisations, we became ever more conscious of, and anxious about, human diversity. Can we ever learn to live with ourselves?
Learning from the natural world might help in this regard. Lucy Cooke’s Bitch: A revolutionary guide to sex, evolution and the female animal clears away our outdated expectations of female bodies, brains, biology and behaviour and challenges our ideas about sexual identity and sexuality in humans and other animals.
One aspect of life that seems difficult to argue with is the ageing process. But in Jellyfish Age Backwards: Nature’s secrets to longevity, Nicklas Brendborg asks not just why we grow old and die, but what we can do about it. What can we learn from the Greenland shark that was 286 years old when the Titanic sank and is still going strong; from the many living things that have never evolved to die, and succumb only through unfortunate circumstances; or from one species of jellyfish that can revert back to its polyp stage when threatened and, remarkably, “age again”?
A related question is how bodies, communities and systems regenerate. This is a pressing issue in regenerative medicine, in developmental biology and in neuroscience. In What Is Regeneration?, philosophers of science Jane Maienschein and Kate MacCord point out that this rapidly growing field of study also promises to transform our ability to understand and repair the damage to ecosystems brought on by climate change.
In an acid test of our willingness to see clearly and embrace reason, there is Endless Forms: The secret world of wasps, behavioural ecologist Seirian Sumner’s bid to make us love an animal that is older, cleverer and more diverse than its cuddly cousin the bee. Learning that nearly every ecological niche on land is inhabited by a wasp, and that there are wasps that live inside other wasps, may make you fall in love with the things. But then again…
Another component of great science is, of course, observation – a skill we should all nurture if we want to appreciate our brief time on the planet.
Rolf Sachsse, a curator based in Bonn, Germany, has gathered together the very best of the remarkable work of English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) in Anna Atkins: Blue prints. It is a sumptuous celebration of the sort of close observation that contributes so much to both science and art. Atkins used the then recently invented “cyanotype” process to photograph algae and ferns, thereby creating the first photo book in history.
Barriers to good observation are more often social than practical. History isn’t short of remarkable female astronomers, but before the 1960s, women invariably needed the right relative or the right husband to champion and support their work. The Sky Is for Everyone: Women astronomers in their own words is a testament to the period that all changed. Edited by astronomers Virginia Trimble and David Weintraub, it is an inspiring anthology of writings by trailblazing female astronomers from 1960 to today.
And finally: close observation, fresh thinking and a concern for the environment all come together in Dust: A history and a future of environmental disaster by Jay Owens – for my money, the most enticing of the books we know are due in 2022.
“What can we learn from the shark that was 286 years old when the Titanic sank and is still going strong?”
Owens explores dust as a method for seeing the world anew, from space dust to sandstorms, from the domestic to the digital and from efforts at industrialisation to the latest speculative technologies for cooling the planet. Though dust may often be the harbinger of environmental disaster, Owens, like many of the writers here, still makes room to draw out stories of hope, of salvage and of repair.
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