Making groundbreaking scientific contributions on a shoestring budget has become a challenge in the 21st century. But there are still opportunities. Take American entomologist Walter R. Tschinkel. With little more than scrap metal, homemade portable kilns, and one almighty spade, he has been researching the architecture of ant nests, pouring molten metal into tiny holes in the ground and digging up the resulting casts. The beautifully illustrated Ant Architecture provides a glimpse into his unusual methods but also shows the many fascinating findings and questions his research is throwing up. Supremely interesting, this is unlike any book on insects you have seen before and is already a firm candidate for my top five favourite books of 2021.
If ants give you the heebie-jeebies, you will want to turn away now, for this book review will deal with the ultimate arthropod nightmare: army ants. If, however, insects are your shtick, stick around, because German entomologist Daniel Kronauer has written a phenomenal book on army ant biology that is chock-a-block with jaw-dropping, award-winning photography.
When we think of animal navigation, the dramatic comes to mind: globe-trotting birds, migrating monarch butterflies, and ocean-crossing whales. But on a smaller scale, navigation is no less vital and no less interesting. Take the humble desert ant. Desert Navigator is the culmination of a lifetime worth of study by German zoologist Rüdiger Wehner and his many collaborators. It is an astonishing and lavishly produced book that distils half a century of experiments into a richly illustrated narrative.
Starting your book blurb by asking why gazelles have legs rather than wheels is a suitably out-there question to immediately grab a reader’s attention. A more pertinent question then; why is all life based on carbon rather than silicon? In The Equations of Life, Charles Cockell takes the reader on a giddy tour down the organisational hierarchy of life – from sociobiology to subatomic particles – to show that nature is far more predictable and understandable than it might appear at first blush. His eloquent answer to above and other why questions? “Because physics is life’s silent commander”.
It should have been a straightforward expedition. As a young career palaeontologist, Nick Pyenson found himself in the Atacama desert of Chile, tasked with mapping rock layers to establish a continuous chronology that would help dating fossils found in the area. Whale fossils, Pyenson’s speciality, are rarely found complete, which is true of most fossils. So what do you do when a colleague takes you to the construction site of a new highway and shows you not one, not several, but literally dozens of complete fossil whale skeletons? It represented a treasure trove for science, but retrieving the material before the highway constructors would move in was also a daunting, labour-intensive task that could make or break careers. I almost found myself standing next to Pyenson in the dusty clearing, the Chilean sun beating down on me as he faced this dilemma. This is just one of several immersive narratives recounted in Spying on Whales, which successfully blends travelogue and popular science.