Keeping Time

A review of INTERNAL TIME: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.
By Till Roenneberg.

It’s late, and, as always, I have lots of things I’d like to do before I go to bed. I don’t sleep much. I enjoy being awake. My dreams are quiet, but my days are full of things to […]

September 4th, 2012|Reviews, Wilson Quarterly|

Adventures Among Ants (book review)

Mark Moffett is a macho ant dude. To photograph and study ants, he has spent much of his life dangling from branches, snapping images that remind us that there are other societies all around us – whether in the soil, leaf litter or tropical trees. In Adventures Among Ants, he takes us on a narrative-driven tour through their worlds.

Many books about ants have been written by biologists for the public. But Moffett’s view into their miniature cities is unique – few other authors have spent as much time as he has in the trees, where he has the advantage of being able to look down on us (literally) and across at the ants. […]

June 2nd, 2010|BBC Wildlife Magazine, Reviews|

The Anthill (book review)

In Nature (April 2010)

Raff is the main character in Anthill, the first novel by the towering entomologist Edward O. Wilson. As a child, Raff lives in a world in which nearly everything is decided for him, either by his parents or by chance. He feels like an insect in the lawn — a tiny creature surrounded by big trees and adults. His hard-drinking father is only occasionally employed. His mother believes that she has chosen the wrong man and, in doing so, the wrong life. The most likely fate for Raff is a middling persistence, setting down one leg at a time on an almost inevitable path. But nature intervenes.

As a boy, Raff spends days and nights in a marshy pine forest across town from his house. That swamp changes Raff. He makes it his — an untamed land to know and to map. At first it seems to be an entire world, wild enough to hold a big alligator and thousands of unnamed forms of life. As he grows, the swamp shrinks, and what was once endless comes under threat from development. But Raff cares for the crooked trees and stinky water as much as he cares for any place or thing in the world. Soon he finds himself, against the wishes of nearly everyone around him, walking in the ‘wrong’ direction on the well- trodden track. […]

April 2nd, 2010|Reviews|

Naming Nature (book review)

Chekov wrote that “if you show me a room with a man, a woman, and a beetle, the story is always about the man and the woman.” Maybe it was a teacup instead of a beetle. The point is that any story that involves humans is always about the things we do and don’t do to each other. The rest is, if not quite landscape, damn close.

We shouldn’t feel bad about caring most about each other. If beetles were writing the stories, they would all be about beetles, perhaps with a giant human foot as threatening landscape. We have evolved senses that are finely tuned to noticing each other and, only secondarily, finding the right fruit and avoiding, for example, venomous snakes. So when it comes to describing the world, we approach the endeavor with a view centered on ourselves, and then on animals like us or useful to us. The beetle, even if it lands in our hair, is low on the list. […]

September 15th, 2009|Reviews|

The Dodo’s Sister

Oceanic island chains built by volcanic activity are initially lifeless—dark spots on a lighter sea. But no matter how remote their location, eventually they are colonized. A bird flies in, bringing seeds in its gut or caught in its feathers. Other seeds arrive borne by wind or water. A lizard floats in on driftwood. A seal hauls itself onto the shore. Forests emerge and the islands slowly change color from gray-black to green.

On hundreds of islands, landscapes of rock have come to life in this fashion. The particular trajectories of the biota on any island depend on which species arrived first. In each set of islands, different lineages prosper. The radiation of species is happenstance, following Darwin’s rules, with an infinite variety of possible ends. […]

March 2nd, 2009|American Scientist, Reviews|

The Super Collaboration (book review)

In biology one can spend a lifetime studying an obscure sliver of life—be it fish ovaries, flea legs, or the mites that live in the nostrils of birds. It’s often that obsessive focus that makes broader truths come clear. Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler exemplify that peculiar truism. They met in 1969 when Wilson was a forty-year-old professor at Harvard University and Hölldobler, thirty-three, had come from Frankfurt, Germany, to stay a year as a visiting scholar. Wilson was already well known for his studies of chemical communication and biogeography. Hölldobler was just beginning his work as a behavioral ecologist. They did not know it, but they were about to forge an enduring collaboration, “built” (in Wilson’s words) “upon a close friendship and a common lifelong commitment to the study of ants.” Together they would write tens of papers and three books, among them a Pulitzer Prize winner: their epic 700-page treatise, The Ants (1990). […]

February 2nd, 2009|Natural History, Reviews|