Diverse Earth Sound, Secret Bird Scents, Pandemic-Inspired Sci-Fi, and More

nonfiction

Caring for our musical planet

What do we lose when Earth’s diversity of noise is drowned out by humans?

It looks wild and broken: Sonic Marvels, the Creativity of Evolution, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction
David George Haskel
Viking, 2022 ($29)

In the beginning was silence. The big bang didn’t make a moan, let alone a bang. This is because the universe was born in a sea of ​​nothingness without space and time where sound can exist. In the end, the universe will be silenced again, either collapsed into a singularity or expanded into a cold, flat uniformity. But now, suspended between beginning and end, the Earth sings, rings and chirps: a musical planet, perhaps the only one in the universe. As David George Haskell recounts in his captivating new book, It seems wild and broken, it’s an amazing opportunity – and a formidable responsibility – to have this music and the ears to hear it.

In the beginning, stone, water, lightning and wind sang alone. After 3.5 billion years came the cilia tremolo on the first cells. Eventually, the insects joined the swelling chorus, with “rapid mouthparts, hissing air tubes, drumming abdomens, and wings designed to crackle and snap in flight.” Without syrinxes, the dinosaurs couldn’t exactly sing, but they still rocked the Cretaceous forests with rubbing scales, snapping jaws, tails snapping whips, and a sound like the “choked belch of red ducks.” The asteroid that brought this cacophony to a cataclysmic end gave way to the expansion of the fluting birds. “In birdsong,” Haskell writes, “we hear the evolutionary legacy of renewal after great loss.” And what a revival it was: the roar of whales, the bellowing of elephants, the bellowing of children and the moaning of freight trains. The entire Earth shimmered with sound.

science stories in Wild and broken sounds offer one delicacy after another. What a joy to know that elephants can “hear” with special sensory pads on their feet, picking up voices rumbling in the ground, and that city birds sing at higher pitches than their rural cousins. countryside, choosing frequencies less masked by the muffled roar of the city. The teeth of humans, which once met in a predator’s vise, slipped into an overbite as people turned to the softer foods provided by agriculture, shaping sounds such as ‘firm’, ‘ alive”, “fulvous” and “favorite”. We hear the sounds of the Earth with ears that have evolved from repurposed fish gill bones, sometimes in theaters designed to match the acoustic properties of forests. But why don’t the verses sing? “Predation is a powerful silencer,” Haskell explains. “Animals whose life is sedentary or slow and whose body lacks arms are speechless.”

Earth’s musical variety show is a testament to the limitless creativity of evolution. As with improvisational jazz, order, storytelling, complexity and beauty emerge from the interactive voices of the Earth and her creatures. Here, in the croaking of the bittern, in the clucking and moaning of the tortoise, in the trumpet of Miles Davis, it is “the drunken evolution of its own aesthetic energies”. Music takes us back to direct experience – a time before language, before tools, before humans began to imagine themselves as separate from the earthly community and outside of its boundaries. We are drawn to beauty to listen to sounds that remind us of our membership in complex and interactive orchestras.

As the book develops, it becomes clear that all of this sound science isn’t just a report. It bears witness to a terrible moral and ecological crisis. With lives fueled by sequential explosions of gas and oil, humans make a deafening noise. In our industrial empires, we are constantly beset by droning tires, booming woofers, pounding motors and “a smeared canopy of airline noise”. The burden of noise pollution in cities is unfairly distributed, reinforcing race, class and gender inequalities. Cacophonies harm animals indirectly and directly, of course, interfering with their reproductive patterns, shrinking their habitats, fragmenting their communities, and sometimes killing them outright. Haskell cites the US Navy’s high-intensity sonar blasts, which panic whales: “The sound is bleeding them to death from within.”

A reckless human enterprise is killing Earth’s feral singers at an alarming rate, using poisons, bulldozers, logging fires, and industrial-scale looting of prey species. Readers aged 50 and over live in a world half as rich in songs as when they were born. In that half-century, one-third of North American songbirds have disappeared. Ninety percent of the big fish are gone. Sixty percent of bellowing and squeaking mammals are gone. All lost, in our lifetime, under our watch.

What do we lose when we lose their songs? Listening to the stories of other species’ songs can make us better members of the community of life, Haskell argues. They signal interdependence and resilience, deep kinship, shared beginnings, and likely shared destiny. They are therefore the “foundations not only of pleasure”, he writes, “but of wise ethical discernment”.Kathleen DeanMoore

The secrets of bird scent

A delightfully winding tale of a scientist’s curiosities

Credit: mwalker973/Getty Images

The Secret Perfume of the Birds: Discover the science of avian odor
Danielle J. Whittaker
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022 ($27.95)

Vultures and albatrosses find food using scent cues. Scent influences the mating behaviors of black-eyed juncos. But when a scientist casually told Danielle J. Whittaker that “birds can’t smell,” she discovered that most ornithology textbooks rarely mentioned avian olfaction, and that this misconception was common. The realization changed the course of his life.

Unexpected changes occur regularly for Whittaker, who “has never been particularly good at long-term planning”. In The Secret Perfume of the Birds, Whittaker humorously recounts her own journey from an office worker to a doctorate in primatology. post-doctoral student studying bird behavior at Roller-Derbying executive director of a National Science Foundation science and technology center. A constant throughout the book is that things rarely go the way she expects, which sometimes causes her to question everything she already knows.

After all, the study of avian olfaction is not straightforward. Birds daily coat their feathers with a substance called preening oil extracted from a gland at the base of their tail. This oil contains odorous compounds – in the case of dark-eyed junco, it smells of leaf litter and earth. The study of the appearance of this odor and its role in the behavior of birds combines the chemistry of malodorous compounds, the biology of bacteria and even the genetics of the human immune system. In turn, scientists are investigating this subject with a series of fun experiments that involve capturing juncos in Appalachia, sequencing DNA, and investigating human women after smelling T-shirts worn by men. . Most of these experiments, according to Whittaker, yielded as many questions as answers.

Although she’s not an ornithologist herself, Whittaker introduces a new lens for bird lovers to see common species, and she made me wonder what some of my favorite birds look like. But the book’s greatest success is the way it describes the reality of science. Experiments are difficult and do not always give clear answers. Scientists have biases that can influence their results; for example, focusing on flashier stereotypical male birds instead of females can lead researchers to overlook important details. It takes a diverse group of perspectives – and the humility to reconsider our biases – to truly understand our world.Ryan Mandelbaum

In short

animal revolution
by Ron Broglio
University of Minnesota Press, 2022 ($88)

In a chapter aptly titled “Manifesto”, English professor Ron Broglio begins his book of speculative non-fiction by proclaiming that the animal revolution, although “not televised, mediated or co-opted by our systems of representation” , is nevertheless in progress. The following chapters present a convincing argument that combines “unspeakable incidents of animals in revolt” with theoretical frameworks that reveal their revolutionary power: Kantian subjectivism explains the hordes of jellyfish that suffocate nuclear reactors, Derrida’s radical hospitality unpacks the sheep that the commando rolls over the cattle gates. . Broglio calls on all comrades to join the revolution. —Dana Dunham

Spirit Journey: How thought emerged from chaos
by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam
WW Norton, 2022 ($30)

Questions of conscience often veer into philosophical territory that cannot be resolved, let alone approached by science. mind journey is a more unusual take. The co-authors’ knowledge of computational neuroscience and machine learning supports their premise that behaviors can be broken down into modules of sensors and actors in the same way that proteins are made up of peptides and amino acids. The book’s stars are its illustrated diagrams of minds, starting with “Archie” the haloarcheon and progressing to “Captain Buzz” the fruit fly and finally to frogs, monkeys and humans. —Maggie Brenner

The Kaiju Preservation Society
by John Scalzi
Tor, 2022 ($26.99)

John Scalzi’s standalone adventure novel is a fun throwback to Michael Crichton’s 1990s sci-fi thrillers. When the first wave of COVID hits New York, a delivery driver named Jamie Gray joins a team of scientists at a secret facility in Greenland, where they travel to an alternate version of Earth populated by mountain-sized creatures. called Kaiju, like those familiar from Japanese films. But other people with less scientific goals have also found their way there. In an author’s note, Scalzi describes the book as a “pop song,” and he’s right: there are no cerebral messages about animal rights or nuclear proliferation. Written with the brisk pace of a script, it’s as ironic as a Marvel movie and as awe-inspiring as Jurassic Park.Adam Morgan

March 2022 book recommendations (covers)

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