Six years ago, Ed Yong stunned and delighted readers and critics alike with his dazzling debut, “I Contain Multitudes,” revealing, in vivid detail, the unseen and indispensable world of the microbiome.
My review for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis proclaimed that he “belongs to the highest tier of science journalists at work today.” Those words proved prophetic (if I may congratulate myself): “I Contain Multitudes” made the New York Times bestseller list, and in the years that followed, Yong’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 for the Atlantic won a Pulitzer Prize and was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
Now he’s done it again, and more. His lavish new work, “An Immense World”, is an in-depth investigation into the senses of animals, how and why they shape us even as they remain elusive. We do not take this book as long as we fall into it.
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Yong structures “A huge world” around the German name Umwelt, “the part of this environment that an animal can sense and experience – its perceptual world”. Umwelt runs, like a meme, throughout the narrative, as Yong touches on the familiar – sight, sound, pain, etc. – and extends into non-human domains, such as echolocation and magnetoreception, “the only known sensorless sense” and a holy grail for sensory biologists.
It delves into the mysteries but follows a clear guideline, amplifying the science. “A bat must constantly adjust its sonar” when stalking prey.
“To even find a moth in the first place, it must roam wide open spaces,” he writes. “During this search phase, it makes calls that carry as far as possible – strong, long, infrequent pulses whose energy is concentrated in a narrow frequency band. … The whole hunting sequence, from the initial search to terminal buzz, can take place in seconds.
From bat sonar to dog noses to swimming pool electric fields, Yong’s reporting is layered, seasoned with vivid lab and field scenes, interviews with researchers in a range of disciplines. Animal geeks will dine on the rich anecdotes, historical detours, and concise footnotes, all propelling its momentum. His prose is witty, broad, and scholarly; he ironically notes that male mice “produce a pheromone in their urine which makes females particularly attracted…this substance is called darcin”, according to the male hero of “Pride and Prejudice”.
Nature is therefore a costume drama, a multiverse, a profusion of wormholes: what goes into one ear can come out transformed. Yong goes beyond the known unknowns – how does a mantis shrimp, with its complex eyes, see? Can mosquitoes sense body heat? — and to unknown unknowns. Have we touched on all the sensory landscapes, or are there others?
In its final act, “An Immense World” swells with philosophy and politics, highlighting the urgency of climate change. Yong’s book blends epic journeys with intimate accounts, one of the year’s finest journalistic achievements.