An Immense World

by Ed Yong


2023 Oct 22


The Earth teems with sights and textures, sounds and vibrations, smells and tastes, electric and magnetic fields. But every kind of animal, including humans, is enclosed within its own unique sensory bubble, perceiving but a tiny sliver of our immense world.

In An Immense World, Ed Yong coaxes us beyond the confines of our own senses, allowing us to perceive the skeins of scent, waves of electromagnetism, and pulses of pressure that surround us. We encounter beetles that are drawn to fires, turtles that can track the Earth’s magnetic fields, fish that fill rivers with electrical messages, and even humans who wield sonar like bats. We discover that a crocodile’s scaly face is as sensitive as a lover’s fingertips, that the eyes of a giant squid evolved to see sparkling whales, that plants thrum with the inaudible songs of courting bugs, and that even simple scallops have complex vision. We learn what bees see in flowers, what songbirds hear in their tunes, and what dogs smell on the street. We listen to stories of pivotal discoveries in the field, while looking ahead at the many mysteries that remain unsolved.

Funny, rigorous, and suffuse d with the joy of discovery, An Immense World takes us on what Marcel Proust called “the only true voyage… not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes.”

Notes & Highlights

Chapter 7: The Rippling Groud | Surface Vibrations

I’m in a lab in Columbia, Missouri, staring at a tick-trefoil plant. A dot of red light is shimmering on one of its leaves, as if someone planned to assassinate it. The dot is coming from a device called a laser vibrometer. It converts the vibrations moving over the surface of the leaf, which we cannot hear, into audible sounds, which we can.

Chapter 8: All Ears | Sound

Payne returned to the zoo in October with two colleagues and some recording equipment. They left the recorders running while keeping round-the-clock notes on the animals’ behavior. Payne didn’t listen to the tapes until Thanksgiving eve, and she began with a recording from one especially memorable event. She had felt that familiar silent throbbing at a time when two elephants—Rosy, the matriarch, and Tunga, a male—were facing each other on opposite sides of a concrete wall. At the time, they seemed silent. But when Payne sped up the recordings from that encounter, raising their pitch by three octaves, she heard what sounded like mooing cows. Across their concrete divide, and unbeknownst to the nearby humans, Rosy and Tunga had been having an animated chat.

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An Immense World by Ed Yong