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"I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird's egg"
– Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862
How are eggs of different shapes made, and why are they the shape they are? When does the shell of an egg harden? Why do some eggs contain two yolks? How are the colours and patterns of an eggshell created, and why do they vary? And which end of an egg is laid first – the blunt end or the pointy end?
These are just some of the questions The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg answers, as the journey of a bird's egg from creation and fertilisation to its eventual hatching is examined, with current scientific knowledge placed within an historical context. Beginning with an examination of the stunning eggs of the guillemot, each of which is so variable in pattern and colour that no two are ever the same, acclaimed ornithologist Tim Birkhead then looks at the eggs of hens, cuckoos and many other birds, revealing weird and wonderful facts about these miracles of nature. Woven around and supporting these facts are extraordinary stories of the individuals who from as far back as Ancient Egypt have been fixated on the study and collection of eggs, not always to the benefit of their conservation.
Firmly grounded in science and enriched by a wealth of observation drawn from a lifetime spent studying birds, The Most Perfect Thing is an illuminating and engaging exploration of the science behind eggs and the history of man's obsession with them.
Tim Birkhead is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and his research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for the Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife. Among his other books are Promiscuity, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology which won the McColvin medal, The Red Canary which won the Consul Cremer Prize, The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sense. He is married with three children and lives in Sheffield.
"[...] As you can see, The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg is not a dry, technically dense treatise. Quite the opposite, it is an interesting, comprehensible exploration of eggs. It will help anyone understand this “most perfect thing”. More than that, though, it gives a tantalizing taste of the exciting things just waiting to be discovered even about topics that we might, naïvely, consider mundane."
– Grant McCreary (15-07-2016), read the full review at The Birder's Library
"[...] This tour of scientific history does not shy away from the limits of knowledge, or attempt to tie up loose ends, instead emphasising where we have more to learn. I enjoyed the stories of wrong turns, such as the rather startling conclusion by Erasmus Darwin that some eggs are bright blue for camouflage against the sky when viewed through the ‘wickerwork’ of nest, which clearly shows that he had never seen the nest of a Song Thrush or Dunnock. The focus of this book is the process of discovery, ranging from tales of the author investigating the mechanisms of egg patterning by scrawling on an egg with a number of pencils tied together, to the value of long-term monitoring of breeding ecology. It is sure to be of interest to anyone with an appreciation of bird behaviour and biology, or the history of ornithology."
– Kate Risely, BTO book reviews
"The title is also a perfect description of the book itself – full of wonder and surprise and beautifully written"
– Nick Davies, author of Cuckoo
"Birkhead's approach to writing – hard, clear sentences; deep, revelatory looking – has the same effect as his microscope, bringing objects to light that were previously hidden, making us see the familiar with new eyes [...] After reading The Most Perfect Thing, you'll never dip your morning soldiers without a shiver of wonder at the complexity and resourcefulness of the humble egg."
– Alex Preston, Observer
"Eye-opening [...] Thoroughly engaging, it also gives us a thrilling sense of the vast, unmapped territories that lie beyond, waiting to be discovered"
– Sunday Times
"Superb [...] like having the top of your own head lifted off and its contents deliciously stirred: no one after reading this book could think it was possible to know too much, no one could think science removes us from feeling"
"What Birkhead does is show to anyone interested in nature why any such object is a source of wonder and fascination [...] Innovative work. Birkhead has made birds' eggs interesting again, by giving us a new way of looking at them: not as commodities to be drooled over and collected, but as wonders of natural science [...] Birkhead answers all the basic questions with panache, but other, stranger facts caught my imagination even more [...] Yet it is the incredible mechanisms of the life-support system, which Birkhead lays bare with perfect clarity, that are the most wondrous"
– Michael McCarthy, Independent
"Quirky and revealing [...] Many fascinating facts [...] Birkhead writes in a jaunty and compelling style, and is not afraid to deal head-on with the politics of eggs [...] This book is illustrated with a fine selection of photographs showing the extraordinary variety of shapes, sizes and colours of eggs [...] Tim Birkhead is one of Britain's leading zoologists, yet he skilfully bridges the gap between scientists and non-scientists [...] Impressive – an important contribution to our understanding of the world around us, and its extraordinary natural wonders"
– Stephen Moss, Daily Mail
"Birkhead has made birds' eggs interesting again, by giving us a new way of looking at them: not as commodities to be drooled over and collected, but as wonders of natural science"
"So full of fascinating facts. The author is to be congratulated on a major step forward in our understanding of eggs that in the past we just accepted and did not query. The reader will never look in eggs the same way again"
– Ray Collier, Highland News Group
"He takes us on an epic journey, from the outer shell of an egg to its genetic core [...] It is a voyage packed with astonishing details"
– James Attlee, Independent
"Justly acclaimed for his brilliance at explaining complex science in a beguilingly lively style [...] Though it is only April, I suspect that this beautifully written volume will end up the best bird book of 2016"
– BBC Wildlife
"Excellent [...] the author is exceptionally versed in the literature on eggs, from speculative 17th-century texts to the sprawling data pumped out by the poultry industry today"
– Wall Street Journal
"Anyone drawn to the natural sciences will relish it [...] There are curiosities at every stage"
"A wonderful insight into one of nature's most fascinating processes"
– Countryside Photographer
"A text that bubbles with enthusiasm [...] A book that will keep you enthralled from your morning egg to your evening quiche. A delight"
– New Scientist
"Anyone drawn to the natural sciences will relish it [...] The story of learning delights Birkhead as much as our current accumulation [...] Birkhead's telling is joyful"
– Horatio Clare, Spectator
"Superb [...] an enthralling, immensely readable book that combines deep scientific knowledge, lightly worn, with an awareness of history and a refreshing willingness to give the early pioneers of British ornithology – notably Francis Willoughby and John Ray – their due"
– Nigel Andrew, Literary Review
"Birkhead's enthusiasm for this "everyday miracle of nature" is infectious and his erudition lightly worn [...] A magical account"
– Times Literary Supplement
"A delightful blend of amazing facts and hard science. You'll never look at a chicken in quite the same way again"
– Stephen Moss, Guardian
"From the handsome coloured pictures to the fascinating details about the sex life of birds, this is that rare thing: a scientific book to delight the general reader"
– Books of the Year, Daily Mail
"I cannot think of a science book that is better written"
– John Lewis-Stempel, The Times