Category Archives: Science

How They See

Cover of An Immense World by Ed Yong
An Immense World by Ed Yong

Ever since I read An Immense World by Ed Yong (cover above), I’ve been obsessed with the term “Umvelt“. It’s a German word that, aside from the host of semiotically-charged terms in that Wikipedia entry, basically refers to how an organism perceives, interacts with, and navigates the world. It’s all about the senses.

We humans have five (well, a lot more than five, but we won’t get into that) sense: taste, smell, touch, vision, and hearing. With these senses we get all the information we need about the world around us in order to figure it out and what’s going on and how it affects us. Different people have different levels of access to different senses (e.g., a person who is blind or visually impaired has less access to the sense of sight), of course, so it’s impossible to say that any two humans experience the world in exactly the same way.

Animals do it differently. Dogs experience the world primarily through their nose, which is why it’s important to let dogs sniff as many things as they want when taking them on a walk. Cats are similar, though as apex predators (yeah, right, you five-pound ball of fluff trying to crawl up my leg) they also rely on their vision and hearing.

Currently, we have a foster kitten who is blind, and I’ve been watching her make her way through the world. When she’s walking around the kitten room, she uses her nose and her whiskers extensively. Sometimes she bumps her head lightly against the wall, but mostly her other senses serve her well; she can make her way around the room, bipping around obstacles she has memorized, playing with toys, and sniffing around the room to find water, food, treats, and the litter box. It’s actually rather astonishing.

Bright, the blind kitty
This is Bright, our blind foster kitty, who, along with her brother Merry, is available for adoption.

But a cat’s Umvelt is different than a human’s. We don’t rely on our noses and whiskers as much as they do. So there are differences.

Further away from us evolutionarily, we get bats who use echolocation to find food (contrary to myth, apparently, bats are not blind; they can see just dandy) and explore the world. Most humans can’t do that (though some blind people have learned to “click” and experience the world around them with that sort of echolocation). Some birds are able to sense gravity differently than we do, or the magnetic fields of the earth to figure out how their migration routes.

Whales, insects, birds, bats, cats, dog, even plants all experience the world and have sensory input from it. Every organism has its own Umvelt.

In critters that have brains, that brain is usually the central processing unit of all those senses; however, that’s kind of diffuse as well. An octopus’s brain is in its head, but each arm of an octopus has its own neural processing unit, its own brain, which can process the sensory input from that one arm and respond to it while sending that information on to the rest of the organism and… Well, octopuses are amazing and confusing animals.

There is evidence that much there are sensory inputs for much larger “meta-organisms”, such as a huge fungal distribution, or a colony of social insects, or even forests; Yong does not go into these so much, so you’d have to read another book, Ways of Being by James Bridle.

Cover of "Ways of Being"
Cover of “Ways of Being” by James Bridle

Ways of Being is a much more philosophical book, and I won’t go into here because even though I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, I still have to process it.

What does all this have to do with Christmas and the holidays? I don’t know if it has anything to do with Christmas and the holidays. I just thought it was neat.

Today I recommend the Zombies are Human series of novels by my friend Jamie Thornton. I’ve maintained for a long time that it’s impossible to do a fresh take on the zombie genre, but Jamie’s done a great job of doing just that. The series starts with book zero, Germination, and goes from there. Read, read, and keep reading. You’ll enjoy these.

Germination: Book Zero of the Zombies are Human series
Germination: Book Zero of Jamie Thornton’s Zombies are Human series

Even zombies enjoy Holidailies.

Daytrip Across the Universe

Apatosaurs with mask

Yesterday some friends of mine and I went to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It’s one of my favorite places to be in the world. I’d say the Natural History Museum in London is a close second, but I haven’t been to that particular institution in over twenty years, so I can’t really say for sure.

When I was a kid, my family took me to the Academy on a fairly regular basis, and I remember loving the earthquake room, the solar system model, the Foucault pendulum, the Africa exhibit, and Hall of Man, and more. They remodeled the Academy about thirteen(!) years ago; I went there when they reopened in 2008 and was unimpressed, since they’d moved everything around including my one-favorite exhibits. But now I’ve been twice in the past two years, and I am loving it again.

I really wanted to be a scientist of some sort when I was in high school. A marine biologist, preferably, since my high school biology teachers were so good at their jobs and inspired me so well; however, college-level chemistry and math did me in. I did poorly in my first year and a half at UC Davis until I took James Griesemer’s course in the philosophy of the biological sciences in 1988, and fell in love with philosophy. I took a number of courses in the history and philosophy of science, and could have pursued that topic on graduate school, but… I didn’t. For a long time I regretted not following up on that, but now I’m in an MLIS program at San Jose State University, and longing to become a science writer and librarian at some sort of research institution: ideally, of course, the California Academy of Sciences. I would never have survived graduate school, in either a scientific discipline or in philosophy. The idea of specializing in one topic in a single field would have brutalized my tiny little brain. Librarianship seems like the perfect place for a generalist, an intellectual vagabond like me.

And now that I’ve sort of zeroed in on that career path at the age of 53, we’ll see if I have a chance to follow through.

I took a number of photographs at the Academy, including the one above of the T. rex with a cloth mask on its face.  Here are some others:


I love jellyfish! I love the way they glide through the water, flowing tentacles in their wake. I learned that some jellyfish, such as moon jellies, qualify as plankton, which surprised me since I’ve always thought of plankton as the microscopic critters that float in the ocean not doing a whole lot except consuming food and providing food for other larger organisms… exactly the way these things do.


Jaws of a megalodon

This cast of the jaws of a megalodon fossil impressed me. It’s 6+ feet of toothed joy, and you can really see the rows of teeth that would have grown into the jaw as older teeth fell out. It’s not the best picture, but I am pleased with it.


Claude the albino alligator

Finally, this is Claude, the albino alligator. It’s a much better picture when it’s scaled down rather than blown up. Some trick of lighting or some quirk of my phone’s camera sharpened and highlighted the image more than it should have. Claude’s been part of the Academy for as long as I can remember. An albino alligator would not have lasted long in its natural habitat, since its coloring would have made easy prey for a predator.


And this, of course, is the entrance to the Academy’s impressive rainforest exhibit. Fun fact: When I went to the Academy on my own one day in 1998, I caught a presentation on the rainforests that including the Rainforest Rap:

…which, unfortunately, cannot be embedded in this post, but if you go to the YouTube video I’ve linked to, you will, I promise, be enraptured.

What did I learn in the Academy’s rainforest exhibit? Primarily that I would not enjoy being a rainforest ecologist. It was humid and hot and by the end of it I was sweating pretty heavily, which is not something I enjoy. However, I am glad that there are people studying the amazing diversity and beauty of the tropical rainforests, and working to preserve them.

Anyway, as I’ve said, the California Academy of Sciences remains one of my favorite places on Earth. I will very likely go again soon, bringing yet more friends with me.