David Bodanis

Social Scientist

Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science

By Richard Dawkins

Bantam Press 439pp £20 order from our bookshop

This is the second volume of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, carrying the story on from the 1976 publication of his bestselling The Selfish Gene, the point at which the first volume ends. Dawkins has several personae and all of them are on display here. The Dawkins who appears most briefly is the superb science journalist of the era of The Selfish Gene, able to describe, in the clearest of language, the many ingenious mechanisms that living creatures use to survive. For instance, he engages in the problem of how bats navigate and detect moths at night, noting that bats, as all schoolchildren know, send out sonar pulses that bounce off their targets. But then he raises a problem. The signals that bounce back are weak, so bats need sensitive ears to detect them; yet they also need to send out very loud pulses at the start of their search, since only a small fraction of the sound energy they emit will hit their targets and bounce back. How do they avoid being deafened?

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