Nature Fast and Nature Slow
This is a popular science book aimed towards the curious layperson. The author is a Professor of biology at the University of Miami, an expert in mycology, and has written widely about the microbial world. According to their biography on the University of Miami’s website, they have pioneered the use of high-speed photography to study the propelling mechanism of fungi expelling their spores. As the title implies, the author has limited themselves to cover biological processes in this book.
The book is divided into a preface and ten chapters, covering a time span from 10-6 seconds to 1016 seconds (billions of years). Each chapter has a title that informs the reader of the main type of event covered: “Ballistics” for the chapter covering fractions of seconds; “Bowheads” for the chapter covering centuries; and “Beginnings” for the chapter covering billions of years. Within each chapter, the author gives examples of processes, together with the mechanisms that drive them and their purpose. The difference between the shortest and longest timespan covered in the book is a staggering 22 orders of magnitude.
Interspersed in the text are passages covering the nature of time and how we humans experience it. The smallest period a human can perceive for discrete visual stimulus is about three milliseconds, and for audio or touch it is around two milliseconds. The brain then processes the information so that we can perceive “the present” as a continuity. These lower limits allow humans to react to most dangers in time, without the need to upgrade the power, size, and energy consumption of our brains. This rate also slows over time, which helps explain why time appears to pass faster as we age. However, as the author points out, there are uncountable faster and slower natural processes that affect us, sometimes in unexpected ways. On the other hand, time also passes independently of human experience; most processes described in the book affect humans only indirectly, if at all.
If the purpose of the author is to show the reader the vast variety of processes in nature, going from short duration to long duration, they succeed eminently. However, I feel that the author could have used less examples of processes and instead developed a more comprehensive narrative structure to help understand how all these processes tie together. The author also mentions processes that occur in quantum time (10-15 seconds). That did pique my interest, and I hope a chapter covering these processes will be included in future editions.
Reviewed by Lars Backstrom
BY: Nicholas P. Money (2021). Reaktion Books Ltd. 200 pp. (hbk)
PRICE: £15.95 www.reaktionbooks.co.uk