Reviews for An Immense World

by Ed Yong

Library Journal
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Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

An ingenious account of how living organisms perceive the world. In his 1974 essay, “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel argued that other animals experience a world utterly foreign to us, one nearly impossible to describe. In this follow-up to I Contain Multitudes, Yong, a staff reporter for the Atlantic who won a Pulitzer in 2021 for his reporting on Covid-19, mostly follows the traditional popular science format (travel the world, interview experts), but he takes a different, realistic, and utterly fascinating approach, emphasizing that every organism perceives only a tiny slice of the world accessible to its senses. A tick searching for blood is exquisitely sensitive to body heat, the touch of hair, and the odor of butyric acid from skin. The tick doesn’t willfully ignore the surrounding plants and animals; it doesn’t know that they exist. This involves the zoological term umwelt, the German word for environment that refers to what an animal can sense: its perceptual world. The human umwelt includes excellent vision, tolerable hearing, mediocre smell (but better than dog enthusiasts claim), some chemical sensitivity (mostly in the nose and taste buds), a touch of echolocation, and no ability to detect electromagnetic fields. In a dozen chapters, Yong delivers entertaining accounts of how animals both common and exotic sense the world as well as the often bizarre organs that enable them to do so. “There are animals with eyes on their genitals, ears on their knees, noses on their limbs, and tongues all over their skin,” writes the author. “Starfish see with the tips of their arms, and sea urchins with their entire bodies. The star-nosed mole feels around with its nose, while the manatee uses its lips.” Building on Aristotle’s traditional five senses, Yong adds expert accounts of 20th-century discoveries of senses for echoes, electricity, and magnetism as well as perceptions we take for granted, including color, pain, and temperature. One of the year’s best popular natural histories. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

In I Contain Multitudes (2016), science writer Yong exquisitely explored the teeniest domains of life, microbiomes. Now he sets his sights on sensory biology and animal behavior. Umwelt is the term used to describe the distinctive sensory experience of any particular creature. The “sensecapes” of different animals can be dominated not just by vision, smell, taste, touch, or sound but also heat, flow, and even magnetoreception. The menagerie of critters and their unique perceptual abilities Yong examines here include the platypus with a bill that detects electric fields, sand scorpions that rely on surface vibrations to hunt prey, the echolocation prowess of bats and dolphins, the ultrafast vision of killer flies, and the outstanding olfaction of elephants. The facts are frequently astonishing. For example, the majority of insects appear to be deaf. Pain is referred to as the “unwanted sense,” and naked mole-rats are relatively impervious to some types of it. Yong’s writing is empathetic, impeccably researched, imaginative, and entertaining. The tongue of a slithering rattlesnake “turns the world into both map and menu” whereas catfish are depicted as Daliesque “swimming tongues.” Yong worries about humanity’s “ecological sins,” as sensory pollution—noise, night lighting, chemicals—is ubiquitous. Yong’s scientific curiosity and concern for the natural world are contagious. This is “sense”-ational reading.

Publishers Weekly
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Pulitzer-winning journalist Yong (I Contain Multitudes) reveals in this eye-opening survey animals’ world through their own perceptions. Every animal is “enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble,” he writes, or its own “perceptual world.” Yong’s tour covers vision (mantis shrimp have “12 photoreceptor classes”), sound (birds, researchers suggest, hear in a similar range as humans but they hear faster), and nociception, the tactile sense that sends danger signals (which is so widespread that it exists among “creatures separated by around 800 million years of evolution”). There are a wealth of other senses outside the standard five: sea turtles have two magnetic senses, electric fish generate currents to “sense their surroundings” as well as to communicate with each other, and the platypus’s sensitive bill gives it what scientists think may be “electrotouch.” Yong ends with a warning against light and sound pollution, which can confuse and disturb animals’ lives, and advocation that “natural sensescapes” ought to be preserved and restored. He’s a strong writer and makes a convincing case against seeing the world as only humans do: “By giving in to our preconceptions, we miss what might be right in front of us. And sometimes what we miss is breathtaking.” This is science writing at its best. (July)