31 December 2012

Bravos for Beings

What do you want? A medal?
Praise for The Book of Barely Imagined Beings includes the following:
"Spell-binding, brilliantly executed, extraordinary." – The Guardian
"Magnificent, bravura, astoundingly interesting, beautiful." – The Sunday Times 
"Unquestionably one of the best books of the year." – The Scotsman 
"A top title of the year." – The Irish Times
"An enlightening, beautifully produced book." – The Financial Times
"Book of the year." – Academic Department, Blackwell's Bookshop Oxford
"Clear and lucid, synoptic, nuanced, engrossing, fact-filled yet poetic. Excellent." – The Literary Review 
"Captivating, fabulous, a bounce to the writing, infectious enthusiasm, a lovely book with many charms." – The Sunday Telegraph

30 December 2012

Wonder-working worms

When scientists began decipering the chemistry that the worms use, their first idea was to enlist worms to clean up heavy metal pollution. That turned out to be a failure of the imagination. It may be that in the realm of nanotechnology, earthworm may truly shine. 
-- from The Quantum Earthworm by Carl Zimmer.  Original paper here.

29 December 2012


Thirtieth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 21: “Unicorn– The Goblin shark

page 306: a handful of metaphors. The scientific revolution mathematicized terms that had been vague, such as mass, force, time and energy. In the 20th century, information theory came to underpin much, perhaps all, of physics. When John Archibald Wheeler said "it from bit" was he leaving metaphor behind?

page 307: the Viagra of its day. Today, of course, rhino horn is one of the products exploited for this fantasy. Ideas to stop it include injecting the horns with poison and dyeing them pink.

page 307: rhinoceros beetle. Variations include the Japanese rhino beetle, which has an enormous bifurcated horn on its forehead.

page 310: shark...diversity. There are about 400 species extant but that's diminishing fast. Weapons in the Gilbert Islands made from shark teeth reveal a “shadow diversity” – traces of sharks that disappeared from the surrounding waters before we even knew they were there.

page 311: attitudes [to sharks] are changing. Well, perhaps. “Much to the annoyance of their supporters on the shore...sharks stoke deep evolutionary terrors that a car or a chair can’t compete with.”

page 311: shark sanctuary. First Palau, now French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, which have created ocean sanctuaries of about 2.5 million square miles, or roughly 7/8ths the size of Australia.

27 December 2012

Thorny devil

Moloch horridus

Twenty-ninth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 20: Thorny devil

page 298: remarkable Australian nativeHere is charming short paper on the Thorny devil.

page 299: Life is a pure flame. Olivia Judson compares fire to an animal like sheep a slug because it eats plants. But unlike a normal animal, it’s a shape-shifter. Francis Ponge (1942):
Fire's gait can only compared to that of an animal; it has to leave one spot to occupy another; it makes moves like both an amoeba and a giraffe, lunging forward with the neck, trailing along with the foot.
Italo Calvino (1985):
models for the process of formation of living beings “are best visualized by the crystal on the one side (invariance of specific structures) and the flame on the other (constancy of external forms in spite of relentless internal agitation).”

Picture below, by Tim Holmes, added 9 Jan

Added 18 Jan: Australian inferno previews fire-prone future.

26 December 2012

I will relate, said Finn...

I like the gull-cries, and the twittering together of the fine cranes. I like the surf-roar at Tralee, the songs of the three sons of Meadhra and the whistle of Mac Lughaidh. They also please me, man shouts at parting, cuckoo-call in May. I incline to pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whinging of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of the water-owls in Loch Barr also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in lake-top. Also the whining small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sleibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheatcrake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam, and pilibeen cathrach.
-- from At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien

25 December 2012

Review in The Guardian

Gavin Francis writes:
[This is] a spellbinding book that seeks to astonish us with the sheer intricacy, diversity and multiplicity of life forms that share our planet...
the 27 brilliantly executed [chapters].. are essays in the original, Montaignesque sense of the word...the reader is often treated to rocambolesque free-association, to rival that of Laurence Sterne or Robert Burton...[the] marginalia are like arpeggios on the chords that move through the symphony of the book. None is essential, but each of them adds to the harmony of the whole. I marked up so many in my own copy that when I finished it, I began again reading only in the margins...
this reviewer applauds [the author's] ambition, and [an] extraordinary book

23 December 2012

Sea butterfly

Twenty-eighth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 19: Sea butterfly

page 285: implications. Now real-world observations.

page 288/9: Diatom names. A longer list of amazing names at 100 Diatom Greats.

page 291: millions and millions of [tiny] shells. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes:
The atomizing of things extends also to the visible aspects of the world, and it is here that Lucretius is at his best as a poet: the little motes of dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight in a dark room, the miniscule shells, all similar but each one different, that waves caste up on the bibula harena, the imbibing sand.
page 293: reduction in...primary productivity of phytoplankton. A brief explainer of the 2010 paper by Boyce et al behind this claim is here. It was also suggested that global warming was likely to reduce phytoplankton size. Recent research suggests that warmer future oceans could cause phytoplankton to thrive near the poles but shrink in the tropics.

page 293: plastic...particles are now everywhere, including the Southern Ocean. See this or this. On marine plastics (and everything about the oceans) read the magnificent but disturbing book Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts.

Review in The Sunday Times

James McConnaghie's review of "this magnificent bestiary" is the cover story of the books section in this week's Sunday Times. He says:
...the true literary ambition and inspiration that motivates [the] astoundingly interesting essays [in this book] is the freewheeling philosophical writing of...Montaigne.
bravura [essays]...exuberantly learned, [this] book...is much more than a basic bestiary. Physically, it is beautiful...Politically, it is decidedly green, but Henderson prefers lyricism to anguished howling...There is as much about the future as the past...

Eileen Battersby at The Irish Times includes Barely Imagined Beings among her Top titles from a reading year.

(Image of Ichthyostega by Nobu Tamura)

21 December 2012

The music of non-life

The previous post touched on whale music in the world ocean. Non-living systems can create kinds of music too:
Dunes near Al-Askharah in Oman sometimes sing notes of almost every possible frequency from 90 to 150 hertz, or F-sharp to D.

A black hole can project sounds across the intergalactic cloud at 56 octaves below the B flat below middle C.

Right whale

Twenty-seventh in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 18: Right whale

page 268: epigraph from The New York Times. But many whales do continue to suffer in the North Atlantic, notably through entanglement in fishing gear which can cause a lingering death over six months.

page 268: musician...recorded...long whistles. The musician was Max Eastley. A sample recording is here. My account of the expedition is here

page 269: not presence but absence. The degradation of terrestrial soundscapes is noted by Bernie Krause. See here or here.

page 269: true songs.  Complex songs have now been observed in a number of whale species besides humpbacks. Bowheads whales, for example, jam like Hendrix for months.

page 278: roar of machines. See deafening and A rising tide of noise is easy to see. Listen to the Deep links underwater observatories across the oceans with the aim of creating a global picture of noise and its effects in order to inform future policies intended to reduce noise. Whisper of the Wild describes the emerging field of terrestrial soundscape ecology.

page 279: Toni Frohoff's words were first published is Watching Whales Watching Us by Charles Siebert.

In 'Voyager, Chief', an essay published in Sightlines, Kathleen Jamie writes that whales' eardrums  (pictured above) were greatly prized by whalers:
I've heard it said that...they were the only things to emerge from the final furnace the whales' carcasses were put through - the left-over bits that is. I've read - frankly, I've read as much as I can bear about whaling -- how the whalemen, slithered and groped in the whale-gore, seeking those ear drums...I find [the eardrums] beautiful and sad and complete; all that can be said about sea-waves and sound-waves, song and utterance, is rolled together in these forms.
     ...What did they hear...? They heard us coming, that's what.

P.S. In Right Whales Decoded Julia Whitty reports on recent findings that Southern right whales are slowly repopulating New Zealand waters from which they were eliminated in the 19th century.

20 December 2012


There is a Peruvian deity, painted on a clay pot dating from around A.D. 300, believed to be responsible for guarding farms. His hair is made of snakes, entwined in braids, with wings for his headdress. Plants of various kinds are growing out of his sides and back, and a vegetable of some sort seems to be growing out of his mouth. The whole effect is wild and disheveled but essentially friendly. He is, in fact, an imaginary version of a genuine animal...a species of weevil in the mountains of northern New Guinea that lives symbiotically with dozens of plants, growing in the niches and clefts in its carapace, rooted all the way down in its flesh, plus a whole ecosystem of mites, rotifers, nematodes and bacteria attached to the garden.
-- from 'Some biomythology' in Lives of a Cell (1974) by Lewis Thomas.

There is a tendency, Thomas concluded, "for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other...get along, wherever possible." 

His point is  supported by recent discoveries regarding the microbiome. As Carl Zimmer writes in When you swallow a hand grenade, this is an interdependence we’ve been evolving for 700 million years, ever since our early animal ancestors evolved bodies that bacteria could colonize. Even jellyfish and sponges have microbiomes.

18 December 2012

Notes, chapter by chapter

New on this site: a list of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, chapter by chapter.

Reviews of the book here.

Articles by me here.

Review in The Independent

There is a review by James Attlee in The Independent of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings:
...Henderson hopes to prompt a sense of responsibility as well as wonder... [This] extended paean to nature's creativity leaves us with a sense of unfinished business rather than inevitable doom.

17 December 2012

The incredible heaviness of being

Image: Mark Witton

Twenty-sixth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 17: Quetzalcoatlus

page 246 (margin): flight consistently features in human dreams. For Italo Calvino, flight is not solely about the fantastical. In 'Lightness', one of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, he writes:
Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don't mean into escaping dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.
page 250: Quetzalcoatlus...may have [weighed more than] 100kg and had a wingspan of 11-12 metres. Mark Witton and Michael Habib argue it had a mass of up to 200-250kg, and a wingspan of 10-11m.

Luis Rey

page 251: More than 100 million years after Sharovipteryx, a creature called Microraptor evolved both fore and hind wings. It was not a success.

page 256: ropen: websites such as livepterosaur show that the forces of daftness have not been extinguished on Planet Earth.

page 259: the 14-bis...first flew suspended from [a] dirigible:

page 261: biofuels. There are reports that versions under development by companies such as Bio Fuel Systems could be 'better than carbon neutral.'

page 262 (margin): See Grinding the Crack and Sense of Flying.

page 263: gravity 'as sovereign as love'.  Cosmically, it is more so if Caleb Scharf is right that black holes drive the evolution of the universe.

P.S. 18 December: A section of this chapter that was cut before publication touched on aerobiology. A version of that section is here. See Caleb Scharf on trans-planetary microbes.

14 December 2012


Twenty-fifth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 16: Pufferfish

page 242: an interesting article on Ocean sunfish here .

page 242: a report on extreme food here.

page 242: hundreds of millions are obese. From the WHO summary:
* Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
* In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight.
* 65% of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
Ed West thinks obesity is, after the moon landings, humanity's greatest achievement.   Added 18 Dec: the Global Burden of Disease report indicates indicates that people are living longer than ever but that overeating is now a bigger problem than lack of food.

page 243: Adam Phillips. See Hungry ghosts.

13 December 2012

The ritual stance

Humans are as ritualistic today as they have ever been. This is not a comment on the changing fortunes of organised religion in different parts of the world (growing and spreading in some places while undoubtedly declining in others). It is a point about the profoundly ritualistic character of all human cultures, whether in families, schools, workplaces, governments, or international relations. Rituals persist even where gods do not. Even the most secular political systems ever devised — for instance, those under the sway of historical materialism and its vision of a Communist utopia — were as devoted to ritual as any in human history.
-- Harvey Whitehouse

11 December 2012


Twenty-fourth in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 15: Octopus

page 224 Ogden Nash.
Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us. 
page 228: sophisticated...behaviours.  See, for example, this film of an octopus holding a shark at bay while wrestling three zip ties of a baited canister at the same time.

page 228: awareness, 'full blown' consciousness. In August 2012 a a group of cognitive neuroscientists, computational neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, neuropharmacologists an neurophysiologists declared that octopuses are among the non-human animals that possess "the neurological substrates that generate consciousness."  See also Deep Intellect: inside the mind of an octopus by Sy Montgomery.

page 229: Vampire squid. Matt Taibbi wrote a great article but he misrepresented the actual animal.  For an octopus that looks like Marge Simpson see here.

page 232: the mosaic from Pompeii looks like this:

page 233-4: Victor Hugo. According to China Miéville (M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire):
The spread of the tentacle – a limb-type with no Gothic or traditional precedents (in ‘Western’ aesthetics) – from a situation of near total absence in Euro-American teratoculture up to the nineteenth century, to one of being the default monstrous appendage of today, signals the epochal shift to a Weird culture.
page 235: Clues about the potential future of our species. See a sixth sense.

page 237: a happy childhood. In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier distinguishes the good side of childhood, which he associates with Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Reverie, from the bad side as expressed in works like William Goldingʼs Lord of the Flies. The good includes numinous imagination, unbounded hope, innocence and sweetness:
This aspect of childhood is the very essence of magic, optimism, creativity, and open invention of self and the world. It is the heart of tenderness and connection between people, of continuity between generations, of trust, play and mutuality. It is the time in life when we learn to use our imaginations without the constraints of life lessons. The bad is more obvious, and includes bullying, voracious irritability, and selfishness.

10 December 2012


Roughly the size of a rather large pebble, the oyster is more gnarled in appearance, less uniform in color, and brilliantly whitish. It is a world categorically closed in upon itself. And yet it can be opened: that takes gripping it in a folded rag, plying a nickel and dull-edged knife, chipping away at it over and over. Probing fingers get cut on it, nails get broken. It's a rough job. The pounding you give it scars the envelope with white rings, a sort of halo.
Within, one finds a world of possibilities for food and drink: beneath a mother-of pearl firmament (strictly speaking), the skies above settle in on the skies below, leaving only a rock-pool, a viscous green sack that ebbs and flows before the eyes and nose, fringed with a border of darkish lace.
On rare occasion the perfect formula pearls up in its nacreous throat, and we take it at once for our adornment.
-- from The Nature of Things by Francis Ponge, translated by Lee Fahnestock

9 December 2012

Painting the invisible

Watercolor of Mycoplasma mycoides by David S. Goodsell, the Scripps Research Institute.

Section through a eukaryotic cell here.

8 December 2012

"Book of the year" - The Scotsman

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is "unquestionably one of the best books of the year" writes Bella Bathurst (who previously reviewed it here).  Jackie Kay also selects Barely Imagined Beings: "another wonder."

Last week The Independent selected Beings as one of the "best Christmas presents for the bookish."

Writing in Bath Life on 30 November, Nic Bottomley of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights selected Barely Imagined Beings as one of two published this year that "knocks the socks of most others in terms of beauty of production and as a gift for a very wide range of recipients...The detailed cultural and natural history of each animals is engaging and accessible." The book's "stunning appearance"...will make it a "huge hit."

FT review

In a micro-review in The Financial Times, Carl Wilkinson describes The Book of Barely Imagined Beings as "an enlightening, beautifully produced book that challenges man’s perception of the natural world."

7 December 2012


Twenty-third in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 14: Nautilus

page 208: and time could exist. For a brief introduction to the nature of time as understood by a physicist see Ten things everyone should know about time by Sean Carroll. An artist's view at Refusal of Time.

page 211: deep time. My starting point is:
we need to spend a lot more time and psychic energy imagining not just life as we know in all its astonishing and disconcerting particularity, but also the stupendous beginnings of life on Earth during the Hadean, Archaean and Proterozoic eons. We will benefit from extended meditation on the forces that formed life, from the period when, for thousands of years, molten rock rained out of the sky onto an ocean of magma to the time, billions of years later, when the tides of the newly made seas – buffeted by a Moon much closer than it is today and an Earth rotating in just 18 hours – ebbed and flowed with stupendous force. We will be more alive if we envision the shallow warm pools where, perhaps, proto-life pieced itself together from the precursors of RNA, and apprehend the origins and development of photosynthesis. We will be enriched by re-imagining the Ediacarian biota, those multi-cellular enigmas of the pre-Cambrian silt which resembled quilted sacks, pizzas topped with triskelions or loofahs warped by a symmetry of gliding reflection. 
page 212: the Moon was closer. It's getting further away and both it and the Earth are slowing down:
Each day is becoming longer by about 1.7 milleseconds per century...[In the distant future, absent the explosion of the Sun], a day [would] last about 47 of our present days and the distance to the Moon [would] be 43 percent longer than today. At this point, Earth [would] spin about its axis at the same rate as the moon [orbited] the Earth — the pair [would] be tidally-locked: the moon [would] hover over the same point on Earth, rather as geostationary satellites do today.
page 213: For Nipponites, existence was one long bad hair day:

page 214: paper nautilus. Marianne Moore wrote this poem.

page 217: The images of the world created by a camera obscura flowSee the solargraphs of Justin Quinell

page 220: Boulevard du Temple. A favourite aphorism of Chris Marker is this from George Steiner:
It is not the past that rules us—it is the image of the past.
page 221: David Octavius Hill. A caption for the photo from 'Time', one of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus in a version by Don Paterson:
Is the infinite life that our childhood awakened torn up by the roots and thrown into the grave?

6 December 2012


The thrush's song flows from the syrinx buried deep in his chest. Here membranes vibrate and squeeze the air that rushes out of the lungs. These membranes circle the confluence of the bronchi, turning a toneless exhalation into sweet music that ascends the trachea and flows out of the mouth. Only birds make sound this way, using a biological hybrid between the flute's swirling tube of air and the oboe's vibrating membranes. Birds change the texture and tone of their song by adjusting tension in the muscles that wrap the syrinx; the thrush's song is sculpted by at least ten muscles in the syrinx, each one shorter than a grain of rice.
-- David George Haskell

5 December 2012

Speak, memory

Twenty-second in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 14: Mystaceus

A version of this chapter was published by Aeon as Webs of Perception

page 201: Bagheera kiplingi lives in South America, not India

page 201: build a mental map. In a comment for the Aeon article Andrew Wilson writes:
Portia doesn't actually build a mental map; there is now strong evidence that its scanning behaviour is a real time perceptual strategy that allows it to look as if it's planning; see Chapter 4 of Louise Barrett's excellent book, 'Beyond the Brain'; the chapter is called 'The Implausible Nature of Portia' and has references to all the primary literature on this.
page 203: it is also possible to remember too much. A real life Funes was 'S', a Russian man described by A. R. Luria in his celebrated work The Mind of a Mnemonist (A little book about a vast memory). Luria writes:
[S] lived in wait [sic] of something that he assumed was to come his way, and gave himself up to dreaming and “seeing” far more than to functioning in life. The sense that he had something particularly fine was about to happen remained with him throughout his life – something which would solve all his problems and make his life simple and clear.

Thus [S] continued to be disorganized, changing jobs dozens of times – all of them merely “temporary.” At his father's bidding he entered music school; later he became a vaudeville actor; then an efficiency expert; and then a mnemonist. At some point, recalling that he knew Hebrew and Aramaic, he took advantage of ancient sources in these languages and began to treat people with herbs.

He had a family – a fine wife and a son who was a success – but this, too, he perceived as through a haze. Indeed, one would be hard put to say which was more real for him; the world of imagination in which he lived, or the world of reality in which he was but a temporary guest. 
page 203: steering a course between remembering too much and too little. See this:
According to [one] theory, our memories act as a kind of ballast that holds us steady during times of stress; they can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort when we are feeling wounded. When people find it hard to recall specific events from their past, however, they feel overwhelmed by life's challenges, which slowly pushes them into depression. "In the right circumstances, the effect can be striking," says [Mark] Williams... If the theory is right, there may be new ways of treating depression that directly target the underlying memory problems.
In Shakespeare's Memory by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator says:
No one may capture in a single instant the fullness of his entire past. That gift was never granted even to Shakespeare, so far as I know, much less to me, who was but his partial heir. A man's memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. St Augustine speaks, if I am not mistaken, of the palaces and caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the most fitting one. It was into those caverns that I descended.
page 205: in its entirety, A Little Fable goes like this:
"Alas", said the mouse, "the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
Theridion grallator

1 December 2012


Twenty-first in a series of notes and comments on The Book of Barely Imagined Beings

Chapter 12: Leatherback

page 187: Odontochelys... P Z Myers addresses the question of how turtles got their shells here.

page 188: Archelon pictured here:

page 191: slow recovery. This can be easily reversed. In Trinidad, for example, baby Leatherbacks died in their thousands after a botched operation to move a river mouth left thousands of eggs and young crushed or eaten by predators.

page 193: gateless gate.  See Thoreau:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born. The intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things.
page 195: Wolf Hilbertz. There is an error in the quote. The fifth line should read “...one was deceived into thinking one saw the sky...”

page 195: innumerable universes. See here.