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Stuart Farrimond

Stuart Farrimond has written 259 posts for Guru Magazine

Book Review: Sex on Earth – A Celebration of Animal Reproduction

Sex on Earth cover artAnimal sex isn’t the sort of thing that usually sells books. With the possible exception of those funny Daily Mail attention-grabbers (like ‘The joy of T-Rex: scientists show how dinosaurs had sex’), most of us couldn’t give two hoots about the ins and outs of animal private parts (at least, not in public). To openly sit down with a book “celebrating” animal reproduction is to most people just, well, a bit weird. Especially when the book is bright orange and has the words “SEX ON EARTH” on the cover. But if you put your prudishness back on the (top) shelf for a moment, and dare to delve into Jules Howard’s titillatingly-titled début, then you’ll be in for a page-turning treat. And hands-down it will be infinitely more entertaining than Fifty Shades of Grey. No, seriously.

Released today, Sex on Earth: a celebration of animal reproduction is among the first books that mark the unveiling of Bloomsbury Publishing’s new Sigma pop-science brand. The book charts author Jules Howard’s twelve-month ‘animal sex journey’ of discovery. A man clearly on a mission, he travels the length and breadth of the UK meeting animal sexperts and spending far too long obsessing about trying to take videos of frogs and slugs getting it on (but not with each other). Each of the book’s fourteen chapters recount his experiences with dozens of (mostly randy) animals copulating with each other and – sometimes – inanimate objects. The variety and – dare I say it? – wonder of how members of the animal kingdom manage to keep spreading their genes is fascinating, if at times also a little stomach-churning. Nature’s carnal diversity makes the Kama Sutra look rather tame.

But early on, Howard sets out his no-nonsense manifesto: no silly shock-facts just for the sake of it (à la newspaper reports of dinosaurs with 12-foot-long penises). Rather, every panda bum and eye-watering anecdote is justified and used as the springboard into something deeper. The topics up for discussion are relevant and timely: flamingos, mallards, jackdaws and slugs each serve as a means to introduce thought-provoking explorations of homosexuality, rape, monogamy and unconventional mating habits, for example. But that doesn’t mean shock-fact fans are left wanting, as Howard also educates us on how a duck summons an erection in less than a third of a second and informs us that banana slugs eat each other’s penises off (there are also several “explosive” YouTube videos that I have not yet dared to watch.) Let’s just put it this way: after reading the first fifty pages, you certainly aren’t going to be the boring one with nothing to talk about at the dinner party.

While interesting and educational, Sex on Earth also manages to do what few science-themed books can – make the reader laugh! Reading like a travelogue rather than a science book, tales of Howard’s’ misadventures are told vividly and with the kind of dry wit and self-deprecation that you would normally expect from a seasoned comic author like Ben Elton.

One particularly memorable story is that of Ollie the pig and Billie the farmyard dog. So funny was it, that I became somewhat embarrassed: hysterical outbursts while reading in a coffee shop are not a good look. Of course, I won’t spoil what happens – you can use your imagination.

The balance of realism, humour and science throughout make for compelling reading. Some of the humour is very British and may be lost on international readers. Yes, there are some rough edges. Some of the more philosophical arguments – such as those surrounding animal (*cough*) self-gratification – are left uncomfortably open-ended. And the occasional unexplained piece of jargon also slips in. But as a whole, Sex on Earth is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. Cheeky and charming, it deserves to be a wild bestseller – even if the subject matter is off-putting for some.

Perhaps the two very cute pandas on the front cover will win a few people over, though. Just look how they seem to be in love – how sweet! Now, if that doesn’t melt your heart, then what Ollie and Billie get up to most certainly will…

Review by Dr Stu

Slider Image Source: Dinner for two by DaiLuo, on Flickr

5/5 Stars

Sex on Earth: a celebration of animal reproduction by Jules Howard is published by Bloomsbury Sigma and released on 23 October 2014

How do you navigate near the Poles?

South Pole at nightWith most smartphones now having GPS, it’s easy to take navigation for granted. Just fire up Google Earth and you can get satellite images of your location, accurate to within a few metres. There are times, however, when using GPS is difficult – if not impossible. Try going on an Antarctic expedition, for example – you’ll soon run into trouble. At temperatures of -40°C, the chemical reactions within all but the most powerful of batteries will slow to a snail’s pace – making them pretty useless for powering your electronic devices for very long. The next best thing might seem to be to whip out your trusty map and compass… except that even a compass stops being accurate as you approach the magnetic pole. No, for finding your way to the North or South Pole requires some truly old-school navigation techniques.

The trick to knowing where you are when trekking near the Poles is to use a sextant. These are ancient navigation devices that have been used by seafarers for eons. (Many sailors continue to carry them today.) They are pretty simple (battery-free) contraptions that measure the angle between the horizon and an object in the sky, like the sun or the moon. By recording the angle of the sun at a specific time (e.g. noon on 1st December 2014) then it is possible to work out where you are using navigation data tables. (You can see examples of these here).

A sextantAnother trick for hiking across the snowy wastelands is to use shadows created by the sun. By facing away from the sun and using your body’s shadow like a sundial, it is possible to make sure that you are walking in a straight line with the use of an accurate clock. For a rough example, to head toward the South Pole then you will want to keep your shadow pointing to your right in the morning (when the Sun is in the east sky), straight ahead of you at noon (when the sun is in the north) and left in the afternoon.

If you are brave enough to try it, then know that it is a very long way. Wrap up warm and get good at singing, for that iPod certainly won’t help to while away the hours…

Answer by Dr Stu with thanks to Veronica Shaw, previous South Pole explorer.

How does water divining work? (Answer: not like how you expect)

Gushes of waterTechnology really is a modern day wonder – we can check emails while on the go, teenagers can message on their mobiles, and pretty much anyone can see their loved ones thousands of miles away on apps such as Skype and Viber. Of course, things weren’t always that way and long before the silicon chip, technology was rather more basic. And some of it involved solving problems with twigs and pendula.

Nowadays, water engineers can use a variety of hi-tech technologies to find underground water. For example, acoustic doppler current profilers detect water movement within a pipe; electrical resistivity tomography devices detect groundwater by through electrified wires dropped into the ground, and magnetic resonance sounding equipment finds underground water using the technology of MRI scanners.

But before all this wizardry existed, people depended on dowsing (otherwise known as water divining) to ‘see’ into the ground and locate things such as water wells, hidden metal, oil, buried treasure and even lost golf balls! And rather than using equipment that costs a bucket load, modern day dowsers use the dame technology: simply placing either two bent rods or a forked stick in front of them and walk over a target area to ‘find’ water. When the stem of the twig pulls towards the ground or the two rods cross over, it indicates that water is near. This process can then be repeated from a different direction to pinpoint the location.

Dowsing has been practiced for millennia and, as with anything with such a history, there are many enthusiasts who swear that it works; some water engineers even use it in their professional work. Dowsing is a practice that has also been extended to finding missing people (although a few more items are needed, namely a map and a pendulum) and is described as map dousing.

Under scientific testing, however, all forms of dowsing seems to work no better than chance. In particular, water diviners have repeatedly been unable to detect underground water in controlled tests.

But finding underground water relies not just on technology, but on an understanding of the land – a realisation that certain areas are more likely to accumulate water than others. Such knowledge of geology and the landscape is used by hydrologists and dowsers alike – whether they realise it or not. And so most scientists argue that the dowser’s twigs or rods move not through detection of ‘earthrays’ (the force that dowsers believe exist) but through the ideomotor effect, whereby the dowser unknowingly moves the device. Much like how tears can be brought on emotions, tiny ideomotor movements and twitches are driven by unconscious beliefs, in just the same way that involuntary hand movements drive an Ouija board reading.

It is likely that an experienced water dowser will have learnt from previous failures and successes in which areas underground water commonly occurs – in the same way a hydrologist can make a best guess from their understanding of geology. And so while a hydrologist may say that they have a hunch about underground water, a dowser will let it come out in their sticks.

Answer By Dr Stu and Chloe Westley

Read more: Water Dowsing by USGS (a thorough appraisal)

Photo Credit: Iain Browne via Compfight cc

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