In An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (Random House, July), journalist Yong challenges readers to imagine the sensory worlds of animals.
Can you describe the role imagination plays in understanding animals’ senses?
Trying to imagine what the sensory world of another creature is like is hard because we are, ourselves, trapped by the confines of our own senses. There’s always going to be a chasm between our senses and theirs, and that chasm can really only be breached through the use of informed imagination. We’re never, ever going to be able to fully jump that gap, but we can make the effort. And I think it’s a worthwhile effort, because it gives us a much deeper insight into the lives of other creatures around us and it makes us see our own world in a very different light. I think that’s a frustrating thing about this, but also a deeply rewarding thing. There’s something kind of wonderful about attempting an impossible task, trying it anyway.
If you could experience one of the nonhuman senses that you write about, which would it be?
I think I’ve always held the echolocation of dolphins to be just deeply fascinating. It would give you information that you cannot achieve with vision. Dolphin sonar penetrates through flesh and tissue. A dolphin could likely, you know, sense your skeleton if you were swimming in the water. It could sense the baby inside you, if you were pregnant, or it could sense the shrapnel inside you if you have an old injury. I think that almost being a living MRI scanner would be really fascinating.
What’s the most startling thing that you discovered while writing?
I really wanted there to be at least a point on every page where the reader stops, puts the book down, looks around, and just ponders the weirdness of the world. You could ask me this question on seven different days and I would give you seven different answers. There is one thing I that I keep thinking about: if you look at all the colors of the flowers around you and consider what kind of eye would be best at telling them apart, what you end up with is an eye that’s basically exactly like what a bee has. You might think, then, that the bee has evolved an eye that’s really good at seeing flowers. And actually, you would be completely wrong. It’s the other way around. The bees came first and the flowers came after, which means that flower colors evolved to tickle the eyes of bees and other insects. And I think that’s just a truly magical thing to discover.
Why this topic now?
Being able to immerse myself inside the lives of other creatures has been a wonderfully magical and transformative experience at a time when I think a lot of us needed a bit of magic and adventure in our lives. I hope that comes through for readers, and gives them a bit of that sense of joy and journey that I think we could all do with a bit more of right now.