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Good Reads  Insects & other Invertebrates  Insects  Termites (Isoptera)

Underbug An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology

Popular Science
By: Lisa Margonelli(Author), Thoma Shahan(Illustrator)
303 pages, b/w illustrations
Engrossing and hypnotic, Underbug is a wonderfully crafted book on both the termite, and all the research and technology it has inspired.
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  • Underbug ISBN: 9781786076823 Paperback Apr 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Underbug ISBN: 9781786071903 Hardback Oct 2018 Out of Print #239710
Selected version: £9.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

With all due respect to bees, the termite stands as the world's most important insect. Without termites much of life on Earth would essentially evaporate. And yet an individual termite is practically invisible, not to mention wholly reviled by humanity.

For Lisa Margonelli, what begins as a bugtastic obsession becomes an exploration of our future. If we can harness the termite's remarkable ability to remake its environment, will that help us avoid a global food crisis? If we create killer robobugs, what happens if the swarms run off script?

A masterpiece of popular science, Underbug touches on everything from metaphysical meditation, technological innovation and the psychology of obsession to good old-fashioned biology.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Hypnotic book about termites and related research
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 Jan 2019 Written for Hardback

    When it comes to social insects, ants and bees get all the love. But, if you pardon the pun of the book’s title, termites are a bit of an underbug. While finishing up a previous writing assignment, author Lisa Margonelli got on the trail of the termite sometime in 2008 and spend the next decade obsessing over them. Tailing various scientists and sitting in on their day-to-day work, she here spins a wide-ranging tale about termites and the research they have inspired. The result is a hypnotic book that ranges well beyond this humble insect.

    The first person we meet is J. Scott Turner, an eccentric physiologist who has been researching termites in Namibia for several decades. As interested as he is in termite behaviour as the mounds they built, their conversations rapidly touch on bigger topics; termites as a superorganism, swarm intelligence, and emergent properties. As we quickly learn, termite mounds are large farms, with termites growing fungi underground. Are the termites in charge of the fungi, or vice versa? And what about the mounds? Turner’s work using time-lapse photography argues for seeing the mounds themselves as living beings, or at least as part of a superorganism itself (for more on this concept, see The Superorganism). Furthermore, he favours the idea of cooperation rather than competition being a driving force in evolution (see also SuperCooperators).

    Through Turner, Margonelli gets acquainted with a group of visiting roboticists who are interested in how termites build their mounds. They hope to understand how simple rules give rise to complex, emergent properties (see Complexity: A Guided Tour). If that sounds esoteric, there would be very real-world applications to this, either virtually as inroads into building artificial intelligence, but also in the real world in the form of autonomous swarms of robots that could construct buildings, either here or in a galaxy far, far away.

    Similarly cutting-edge is the work of the genomics researchers she meets. With advances in technology, genomics is racking up data faster than it can be analysed, or even comprehended. No longer are we sequencing genetic material from single species, but also from all the microbes living in their guts for example. Hence the talk of metagenomics. Since termites are capable or digesting wood fibres, there is intense interest in unravelling the biochemical details of their digestion. It could open the door to a new breakthrough in biofuels and wean humanity off fossil fuels.

    On the other side of the spectrum are the researchers who look at landscape-scale effects of termites. Mathematical principles can explain how mounds and vegetation interact to form regular patterns in the landscape. The incredible quantities of dirt and water that termites move around make them ecosystem engineers, capable of providing conditions for other plants and animals to thrive. And research in Australia has shown their role in restoring former mining sites.

    If you are not all that familiar with social insects, complexity, or metagenomics – neither was Margonelli. Her ringside seat as a spectator makes her as much as an outsider as the reader, and she makes no secret of the fact that some of the technical details her interviewees discuss go over her head. The good thing is that she manages to close that gap in understanding – I cannot quite put my finger on what it is, but there is something utterly hypnotic about her writing that drew me right in.

    Though you will learn a lot about termites, space is also given to the people behind all this research – their motivations, their quirks. Since this book had a long gestation period, Margonelli revisits certain researchers over the years as they advance through their academic careers and make fascinating new discoveries.

    Equally, termites function as a springboard for tangents. A few chapters spin away from the roboticists to talk about the ethics of drone warfare, the involvement of the military in scientific innovation, or the potential dangers of technological progress. Occasionally, termites turn into larger-than-life metaphors, and Margonelli teeters on the brink of existential rabbit holes before pulling back. In the hands of other writers this might have turned into a hopeless mess, but Margonelli mostly manages to loop it all back to the termites. And her excellent writing makes these sections no less fascinating.

    Like her obsessive, decade-long immersion in the world of the termites, I gulped this book down in one long sitting, unable to let go of it. Margonelli provides a unique peek into the otherworldly world of the termite colony, and all the research it inspires.
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Lisa Margonelli's first book, Oil on the Brain, was a national bestseller that was named one of the 25 Notable Books of 2007 by the American Library Association. She has written for numerous publications, including Time, National Geographic, Wired, Salon, Discover and San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Popular Science
By: Lisa Margonelli(Author), Thoma Shahan(Illustrator)
303 pages, b/w illustrations
Engrossing and hypnotic, Underbug is a wonderfully crafted book on both the termite, and all the research and technology it has inspired.
Media reviews

"Turns cutting-edge science into rich narrative by plunging deep into the termite's world [...] Margonelli's masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human, as much as what it means to be termite, and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution."
The New York Times

"[...] one of the finest writers and most original thinkers we have. A surprising, swirling, fantastically unpredictable, thought-provoking, funny, and (depending on your species) delicious book."
– Mary Roach, author of Grunt and Gulp

:In a unique voice that's wry, inventive, and acrobatic, Margonelli takes us on a termite-guided exploration of subterranean tracts of nature, science, and robotics. The book is brimming with flair. Prepare to find yourself absorbed."
– Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Other Minds

"A revealing exploration of one of the most inscrutable insects ever to dominate our planet."
– Jonathan Balcombe, author of What a Fish Knows

"Unlikely but fascinating [...] [this] far-ranging work touches on the nature of individuality, the use of drones by the military, the applicability of concepts of good and evil to science, and the creation of biofuels created using the termite gut, among other topics. Margonelli brings all of this to light by making complex, cutting-edge science understandable to the general reader, while also conveying the excitement, frustration, and plain drudgery inherent in the scientific endeavor [...] Margonelli has written a book as entertaining as it is informative."
Publishers Weekly

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