Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals

19 October 2016

The physics behind many strange or astounding animal behaviours is explained in a new popular science book by Physics World editor Dr Matin Durrani and science and environment writer Dr Liz Kalaugher – Furry Logic: the Physics of Animal Life.

Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals
Tennessee Tech University

Published this month by Bloomsbury, the book takes a deeper look at intriguing phenomena, from the everyday – such as how and why does a wet dog shake itself dry – to the bizarre, such as mosquitoes that wee blood. Along the way there are gender-swapping snakes, triangulating elephants, taser eels and lobster violins, to name but a few.

Durrani and Kalaugher were due to speak about the book and the science behind it this evening at the IOP’s London centre in an event organised by the Institute’s London and South East branch. Previously, the IOP interviewed them about the project.

What was your main motivation for writing the book?

Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals
Jo Hansford Photography

Matin: I'd read so many popular-science books over the years that I always fancied having a go myself. But I never wanted to write yet another book about well-trodden topics such as astronomy, quantum physics or cosmology. So after publishing a special issue of Physics World on how animals use physics to survive, I realised it was a brilliant idea that hadn't been covered before in a book. There are just so many animals – from cats and dogs to peacocks and elephants – that use fascinating physics that I knew there'd be no shortage of material to put in the book.

Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals
Jo Hansford Photography

Liz: I love telling stories and I’m fascinated by science, whether that’s materials science (the subject of my degree and PhD), physics or biology. Writing the book was a great opportunity to talk to the researchers investigating animal powers and gain an insight into the incredible science behind them. It was fun.

How did you go about finding a publisher – was it difficult?

Matin: The timing was great. Just after Physics World published that special issue on animal physics, Bloomsbury was launching a new popular-science imprint called Sigma Science and was looking for science journalists and science writers who could contribute entertaining and informative books to the series. They got in touch, asking if I had any ideas and I knew that animal physics was a winner as it would appeal to a wide spread of readers, straddling both the physics and biology markets. So finding a publisher was simple!

The book isn't limited to "fascinating facts about animals" but explains the physics quite thoroughly – was building an understanding of physics principles a key aim of the book?

Matin: Yes, that's right. We’ve kept a strong storyline throughout and woven the physics in very carefully. The physics explanations are as simple as possible so that the book also appeals to non-physicists, whether they're animal-lovers or not. By the end we hope readers see how and where the main branches of physics – heat, forces, sound, fluids, light and electricity and magnetism – crop up in the animal world.

Do you or did you have a target age group or level of understanding in mind when you started writing it?

Liz: The book is suitable for everybody, from 9-90 as it says on many a board game box, no matter how much, or how little, physics they know already. We’ve done our best to make it an entertaining read.

What surprised you most while writing the book?

Matin: I was amazed how some animals, such as ants and bees, exploit the polarization of light to navigate. We can't easily detect polarized light with our naked eyes, but researchers are only starting to realise just how many animals can. There's a whole field of “polarization vision” waiting to be explored.

Liz: Like Matin, some of the animals that most intrigued me can detect things that we can’t. That makes life much harder for the researchers investigating them, who must turn to physics kit to understand what these animals perceive. I’m thinking of turtles, which detect the Earth’s magnetic field, bees, which sense electric fields, and many birds, which can see the ultraviolet light beyond our vision. Can’t say much more than this or it will ruin the end of the stories...

What's your favourite animal in the book?

Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals
Katrin Schürmann

Matin: I found the electric eel fascinating as it inspired some of the very earliest studies of electricity, such as Alessandro Volta's development of the battery. There's also still loads to learn about these mysterious fish that skulk around South American rivers: researchers have only recently discovered, for example, how exactly their high-voltage pulses stun prey. Turns out they operate very much like police TASERs.

Liz: The giant squid is number one for me. It has eyes the size of dinner-plates – they’re three times larger than those of any other animal. Because we find these cephalopods so rarely, they’re particularly challenging to study. Luckily, with the aid of a photo, a frozen eyeball and a computer model, one researcher has shown why these squid have such big eyes when it takes a lot of brain power to process all the information they produce. As with many animals, it’s a matter of survival. We know so little about what goes on in the depths of the ocean that every new understanding seems extra valuable.

Did you model your choice of content or style on some of the existing popular science books on the market, or did you decide to take a completely different approach?

Liz: I’ve very much enjoyed the books of Mary Roach, author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, among others. Roach has a lively, chatty style and often takes her research to surprisingly personal lengths. As a bonus, you get a clear portrait of everyone she’s spoken to. I also loved The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a book that anyone who’s ever been to the doctor should read – you don’t own any part of your body once it’s no longer attached to you. The story-telling is incredible. At the end of each chapter I’d say to myself ‘I can’t believe they did that’ in tones of increasing horror. If we’ve done even a fraction as well as these two writers I’ll be very pleased.

How did you go about researching material for Furry Logic?

Science journalists get to grips with the furry logic of animals

Matin: Most of the scientific studies covered in the book are very recent. So we read the relevant research papers and interviewed the scientists who'd done the work. Very often you don't get the full story from the scientific literature alone. For example, when investigating why red-sided garter snakes writhe about in giant balls on the plains of Canada after they emerge from a nine-month underground hibernation, I discovered that the snakes are so lethargic that the scientist involved could not only pick the animals up by hand, but also warm them up on the electric seats of his hire car. That was a fascinating detail you'd never discover without corresponding with the researchers themselves.

Did being science journalists hone the skills you needed to attempt this?

Matin:  Yes, one of the key attributes of being a good science journalist is not to worry about putting seemingly dumb questions to the experts -- and to keep asking until you really understand what's going on. That way, you end up writing a better story. I've been editor of Physics World for more than 10 years now and I don't get embarrassed pestering researchers until I get to the bottom of things.

How did you fit writing a popular-science book around your day jobs?

Liz: The main thing that helped was that the topic is so interesting. To go home from a full day in the office then write about something you weren’t enthralled by would have been very difficult.

Has it put you off attempting another book, or do you have plans for another?

Liz: We very much enjoyed writing the book, hopefully as much as people will enjoy reading it, and we have lots of ideas for the future. Watch this space.

How did you both divide up the work – did you take on different chapters, or one write and one edit or research?

Matin: We each separately researched and wrote about different animals in the book, then Liz and I took the lead on separate chapters – half each – to ensure they were properly structured and had a good story line. We also read and commented on each other's work many times over. We think the hard work paid off and made for a really strong book. 

Is the book being sold in shops?

Liz: Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life came out on 6 October in the UK – just in time for the Christmas build-up – and is available in hardback and e-book form, from high-street booksellers and online. Publication in the US is on 31 January 2017. We’re also hopeful that the book will be translated into several other languages. And we think it would make a fascinating TV series.

Was IOP Publishing supportive of you doing this? (You don't have to answer that one!) But seriously, do they see this as having kudos for the company, or do you want to avoid making the association?

Matin: I think the fact that a top company like Bloomsbury is publishing Furry Logic is testament to the quality of the science journalism team at IOP Publishing in Bristol. We're also extremely grateful that the Institute in London has let us hold the launch lecture at its premises.