On The Shelf

On the shelf – Animals strike curious poses (by Elena Passarello)

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As scientists we are bound to constantly read papers to stay up to date with the newest discoveries in our field. Literature-scavenging helps us to understand our own results and infuses us with novel research ideas. However, for some of us reading goes well past the mere study of other researchers’ findings. What do you have on your shelves? Many books have a scientific background or throw a perspective in scientific matters applied to real life; share with us what you have read!

A few months ago, I was leafing through an issue of Nature, and as usual I took a look at the Books and Arts section. What stroke me that day was the title of a book: Animals strike curious poses. Elena Passarello’s assay on animals was among the suggestions of the week, with very encouraging reviews.  Each of the seventeen chapters of this book talks about a famous animal, delving into its biological and historical nature. Among the most famous ones we find: the rhinoceros, drawn by Albrecht Durer in the XVI century; Mozart’s starling, that had an impressive ability to repeat Mozart’s tunes as well as some not so polite word-plays; Darwin’s tortoise Harriett, initially thought to be Harry; Mike, the cock that, in 1945, lived for eighteen months in his farm in Oregon after his head had been cut off with an axe; Arabella, the spider that joined the Skylab 3 mission in space to let scientists study her web-spinning craft at zero gravity.

“He found the mammoth in the rock-hard earth. She lay at the top of the continent, near a sea that thaws in July and refreezes by September. It was a tusk hunter who spotted her, upside-down, in the half-frozen crag.”

The first of all poses we encounter is Yuka’s, a mammoth that was revealed with its still perfectly preserved ginger-red pelt after the permafrost melted in Siberia. The book’s narrative proceeds vividly through an imaginative world in which we relive the most extraordinary moments of these animals; and there we are, running in the steppe with Yuka 39000 years ago. Passarello also takes us on a journey through the most unpleasant happenings, like when tusk hunters hid Yuka’s remains to sell them to the highest bidder. Subsequently, she would become the symbol of a campaign to revive extinct species by injecting their DNA into the embryo of their closest living relative - an attempt to clone long-extinct species.

What is fascinating about this assay isn’t only the witty and riveting narrative of Passarello exploring the historical and cultural role of its protagonists. The thing that makes it different from all other books about animals is that storytelling and research intertwine in a perfect way. The astounding amount of rigorous research pulled by the author gives extreme historical and scientific accuracy to the accounts on the animals. The chapter on the elephant “Jumbo” is an example of this. We read about Jumbo and other elephants through documents spanning the time period between 1796 and 1903, revealing a parallel between the story of pachyderms and electricity. Newspaper articles tell us about different elephants who were purchased as circus attractions and about the first people to ever be executed by electrocution. The circle of this story is closed by the retrieval of excerpts from lab books from the Edison laboratory, where the technology necessary for the development of the electric chair was created, and by patent #587,649 filed at the US Patent Office on August 3 1897.

Animals never cease to amaze us and too often we act unknowingly of the curious poses they strike. At times, we even are the main trigger of those poses. Passarello’s book is a refreshing and nourishing read about fascinating creatures that offers a lot of entertaining moments, yet does not fail to teach us things we didn’t know. It sparks scientific questions that arise from the curiosity that lies within ourselves. Most importantly, it also offers us the opportunity to rethink our relationship with animals. Enjoy the reading of this funny and smart book!

Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Fazi Bekbulat. Featured image: NGC/Carine Thalman.

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