Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Elephant Time, Mouse Time

In my copious spare time1 I'm reading another book after finally getting through "The devotion of suspect X"2. This time I'm not doing a novel, but a non-fiction popular science book. It's a good change of pace, and as a bonus I get to practice some useful vocabulary you don't encounter in most fiction or news reporting.

The book is "ゾウの時間ネズミの時間ーサイズの生物学" ("Elephant time, Mouse time - the biology of size") by Tatsuo Motogawa. It's a look at how body size affects various aspects of animal life. The title itself suggests the overall theme: An elephant and a mouse have very different life spans, but their lives scale with size. A mouse has a much faster generation time, it moves and reacts much faster than an elephant - it must look hopelessly slow and ponderous to a mouse - and even their internal organs work faster. The mouse may end up doing as much as the elephant throughout its life so they live "as long", subjectively, even though the life span is very different.
There's chapters on energy use and food intake, how the size of prey versus size of predator, movement range and population density, cellular activity, speed, organ size and so forth. The book is not just about mammals either; it covers related differences between warm-blooded animals, insects, unicellular animals and water life versus land life as well.

At about 230 pages including appendices it's not a big, heavy book. I've read about a fourth of it so far and I find it both enjoyable and very accessible. There's a bit of specialized vocabulary of course (I'd find it disappointing if there weren't) but his style is clear and direct so it's not a problem. The math is minimal, and what there is, is clearly explained and presented. The appendices give more background for those who need or enjoy such things.

If there's one thing I find a bit annoying it's his occasional tendency to insert largely irrelevant observations on Japan in the text. This is something a fair number of Japanese writers seem to do, though; there's even a thriving publishing genre comparing Japan to other countries, always either doom-and-gloom negative or fiercely patriotically positive.

A less scrupulous blogger would probably spin long involved yarns about how this preoccupation reflects on the Japanese society and its insecurities (and so falling prey to the exact same phenomenon they try to analyze). Me, I don't think this is exceptional at all. Everybody loves to hear about themselves, and it's just the form of self-affirmation that differs. The simplistic "We're Special so We're #1!", "We're Special so We're Doomed!"-format is just one that resonates with part of the Japanese public. It's simply akin to when other people slap their flag on every available flat space, or obsessively compare athletic, technical or historical accomplishments with other countries.

These distracting detours aside - and in truth there aren't many of them - it is a fun book; engaging and inspiring enough that it makes me wish I'd studied ecology as a student. It doesn't seem to have been translated, but if you do know Japanese - or if you study it - you can certainly do much worse than to pick this one up at your local book store.

As an aside, this was published in the 中公新書 (chūkōshincho) book series. There's several series of small, inexpensive pocket books here that are either reprinting older works or publishing narrow-interest books like this one in various fields. This series seem to publish a lot of popular academic (science and the arts) and technical works. I've also bought - but not yet read - a biography on Euler, a work on insect neuroanatomy and a book by a retired JR train driver on the design and operation of railways3. They all seem very promising, so I'm not wanting for reading material once I finish this one.

#1 My blessed half-hour of peace and solitude on the morning train. The evening ride is for studying Japanese.

Seriously, even ignoring the money - just the parking fees at home and work would almost reach my current monthly train cost - I wouldn't want to commute by car. This free time is too important to waste on driving.

#2 I know I wasn't very favourably impressed with it. But it turns out it may not completely be the books' own fault. I read it after finishing Reason by Miyuki Miyabe. Ritsuko is also reading another book now, after she finished a Miyabe book series, and she, too, finds that wanting, even though it's a book she should like. It may simply be that Miyabes works are so good that whatever you read afterwards becomes a let-down by comparison.

#3 Why yes, I am a geek. How did you guess?

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