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Good Reads  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Ethology

An Immense World How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us

Popular Science
By: Ed Yong(Author)
483 pages, 32 plates with colour photos
Publisher: Vintage
An Immense World explores how animals perceive their world and brings a remarkable sense of gravitas, maturity, and thoughtfulness to its exploration of sensory biology.
An Immense World
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  • An Immense World ISBN: 9781529112115 Paperback Jun 2023 In stock
  • An Immense World ISBN: 9781847926081 Hardback Jun 2022 Out of Print #255568
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

A grand tour through the hidden realms of animal senses that will transform the way you perceive the world – from the Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling author of I Contain Multitudes.

The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every animal is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world. This book welcomes us into a previously unfathomable dimension – the world as it is truly perceived by other animals.

We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth's magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and humans that wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile's scaly face is as sensitive as a lover's fingertips, that the eyes of a giant squid evolved to see sparkling whales, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries which lie unsolved.

In An Immense World, author and acclaimed science journalist Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. Because in order to understand our world we don't need to travel to other places; we need to see through other eyes.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A sensory revelation
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 10 Aug 2022 Written for Hardback

    When writing about animal senses, it is easy to emphasize the weird or the superlative. Ed Yong is not interested in comparisons or lists but in trying to understand animals on their terms. One touchstone is of course Thomas Nagel's famous 1974 essay but the lodestar of this book is a concept defined in 1909 by the Estonian-German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll: that of an animal's "Umwelt". Yong sensibly opens with it and offers a crisp definition: every animal "is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world" (p. 5). This book is a sensory smorgasbord spiced up with some particularly fine writing in which Yong discusses the work of scientists past and present, and mixes literature research with interviews.

    Smell, the detection of molecules in your environment, is a skill so useful and basic that even single-celled organisms do it. But it is also hard to study: we cannot predict smell from molecular structure, and it is hard to capture and play back smell in an experimental setup. Vision is easier, but eyes come in a bewildering variety. Jumping spiders dedicate one pair to sharp vision and another pair to motion detection. Scallops have hundreds of eyes lining their shell, but absent much of a brain they might very well see without experiencing vision. Other Umwelten include ultraviolet light, polarized light, and colours we cannot comprehend. But what haunted me was Yong's description of the Umwelt of the squid that dwell in the deep and have obscenely large eyes. The sperm whales that hunt squid do not glow, but they do trigger bioluminescent flashes as they collide with plankton. The squid, it seems, "scan one of the darkest environments on Earth for the faint sparkling outlines of charging whales" (p. 82).

    The chapters on mechanoreception were particularly delightful. The star-nosed mole uses its tentacled nose as a touch organ: "with every press, its environment comes into focus in a starburst of textures [...] like a pointillist image appearing dot by dot" (p. 162). Animals can sense flows of air or water (e.g. the hydrodynamic wake left by fish), such that: "touch extends into the recent past [...] whiskers can feel what was, rather than simply what is" (p. 175). Treehoppers—this blew my mind—produce vibrations that travel through plants, inhabiting a world that can be made audible with contact microphones. Even sound is more multifaceted than just the infra- and ultrasonic calls beyond our hearing. Some birds completely retune their ears seasonally depending on what information matters most. Yong nicely builds towards Umwelten that are increasingly hard for us to understand. I have a renewed respect for bats after reading his list of ten challenges of echolocation. Meanwhile, some fish can both produce and sense electric fields to find prey, detect obstacles, and communicate—and might not even distinguish between these activities. And magnetoreception has us flummoxed despite decades of research as we still have not identified a clear organ for it.

    The chapter on pain, in particular, exemplifies the maturity and nuance that Yong brings to his exploration of sensory biology. You might think that, as a progressively-minded person, he is going to convince you that, of course, animals feel pain. Well, it is complicated. For one, it is an emotive and controversial topic and Yong spots an artificial dichotomy: animals are frequently either assumed to experience pain exactly as we do or not experience it at all. It is conceptually challenging for us to imagine what an intermediate state might be like, but there is no reason to assume it feels the same across the entire animal kingdom. Though pain is a useful mechanism warning of danger and injury, animals "differ in what they must avoid and what they must tolerate" (p. 120). For instance, male praying mantises continue mating while being eaten by the female. Yong introduces the distinction between nociception (the sensory process of detecting damage) and pain (the suffering that ensues); a distinction some people object to. After all, for other senses "we rarely distinguish between the raw act of sensing and the subjective experiences that ensue". However, Yong argues, that is not "because such distinctions don't exist. It's because they usually don't matter" (p. 124). Pain is unique in being the unwanted sense, the one we try to avoid, he adds. Finally, what hinders a better understanding is the instrumental attitude that hides behind these debates. "When we ask if animals feel pain, we're asking less about the animals themselves, and more about what we can do to them. That attitude limits our understanding of what animals actually sense" (p. 133).

    Studying animal senses is hard and asks for humility. Why? Because we do not understand the stimuli that we do not experience, and risk misunderstanding the ones we do, interpreting them through our own senses. Because most sensory biologists spend their careers studying a single sense while animals rely on multiple senses simultaneously. Because sensory experiences could very well blend. Octopuses, for example, have arms lined with both taste and touch receptors. Does that mean they touch and taste at the same time or is it a single, fused experience? And because our experiences appear to us as "purely mental constructs divorced from physical reality". In myths and stories, we imagine transferring our consciousness into the body of another animal to experience their world. Instead, "an animal's sensory world is the result of solid tissues that detect real stimuli and produce cascades of electrical signals. It is not separate from the body, but of it. You can't simply imagine how a human mind would work in a bat's body or an octopus's, because it wouldn't work" (p. 333). I found it to be one of the most profound messages of this book. On the back of all of the above, the last chapter, where Yong discusses sensory pollution, hits extra hard. During the time that we learned more about animal senses, human activities have increasingly flooded animal Umwelten with stimuli, with light and noise pollution being the best documented.

    The only recent book that comes close to what Yong has done here is Martin Stevens's Secret Worlds, which is a somewhat briefer affair, though Stevens brings his expertise as a sensory biologist (he also authored the textbook Sensory Ecology, Behaviour, & Evolution). Yong, however, brings his exquisite writing and skill at capturing scientific nuance for which his reporting is famous. Strictly speaking, it would not be correct to say this book is out of this world, as it is so fully steeped in it. Let me just say An Immense World is a sensory revelation that had me so utterly captivated that I did not want it to end.
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Ed Yong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist who reports for The Atlantic. His work has also featured in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and many other publications. His first book, I Contain Multitudes, was a New York Times bestseller, and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Prize. Ed's TED talk on mind-controlling parasites has been watched by over 1.5 million people.

Popular Science
By: Ed Yong(Author)
483 pages, 32 plates with colour photos
Publisher: Vintage
An Immense World explores how animals perceive their world and brings a remarkable sense of gravitas, maturity, and thoughtfulness to its exploration of sensory biology.
Media reviews

– Winner of the 2023 Royal Society Trivedi Science Book Prize

"A delight [...] it prompts a radical rethink about the limits of what we know – what the world is, even. It is quite a book. And, I felt, putting it down, quite a world"
Sunday Times

"Full of extraordinary discoveries [...] an encyclopaedic, rigorously researched journey [...] recasts the world in breath-taking, bewildering immensity"
Daily Telegraph

"A magic well of surprising, enlightening discoveries about the sensory worlds of other species [...] A brilliant book, marvellous and mesmerizing"
– Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Genius of Birds

"I love this book. Reading it is a delightful sensory experience [...] I truly enjoyed Yong's adventures in Wonderland!"
– Gaia Vince, author of Transcendence

"A stunning achievement – steeped in science but suffused with magic"
– Siddhartha Mukherjee, author The Emperor of All Maladies

"Magnificent – an unbelievably immersive and mind-blowing account of how other animals experience our world"
– Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees and The Inner Life of Animals

"Like stepping into a new kind of Alice in Wonderland. The perfect mixture of revelation, curiosity, science, beautiful prose and buckets full of wonders"
– Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

"A cornucopia of wonders [...] a fascinating reminder of the humbling truth that most of what happens among life forms on Earth is beyond our ken"
– David Quammen, author of Spillover

"An expansive, constantly revelatory exploration of the biosphere's sensorium [...] Ed Yong is my favourite contemporary science writer"
– William Gibson, author of Neuromancer and The Peripheral

"A journal of discovery and animal magic, a sensory exploration that is a joy to read"
– Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief

"Every page finds the reader mouthing quiet whoa's, as the world she thought she knew opens out into a hundred others, improbable, strange, and fabulous."
– Mary Roach, author of Fuzz and Stiff

"An Immense World took my hand and brought me on a journey I'll never forget. After reading this book, I'll never look at our planet the same way again"
– Clint Smith, author of How the Word is Passed

"A whirlwind tour of animal perceptual abilities. A magnificent book"
– Frans de Waal, author of Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist

"A tour of places that are, in essence, unknowable [...] Yet Yong [...] proves an outstanding guide [...] Beautifully written and painstakingly researched [...] this fantastic book leaves you wondering what else is left to be discovered"
The Times, Book of the Week

"Both eye-opening and humbling"
Radio Times

"Remarkable [...] a delight, a book that prompts awe at the world around us"
Sunday Times, Summer Reads of 2022

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