The human sensory experience is limited. Journey into the world that animals know
Science writer Ed Yong recently won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence for An Immense World, his book about the diversity of perception in the animal world. Originally broadcast June 22, 2022.
Other segments from the episode on February 17, 2023
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY NO GO")
DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Now let's get right on down to the skit. A baby is brought into a world of pits.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. David Jolicoeur, otherwise known as Trugoy the Dove or Plug 2, of the influential hip-hop group De La Soul, died Sunday at the age of 54. No cause was given. Though recently he revealed he had congestive heart problems. In 1989, the group released its first album with such fun and funny tracks as this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME MYSELF AND I")
DE LA SOUL: (Rapping) Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me mirror, what is wrong? Can it be my De La Clothes, or is it just my De La Soul? What I do ain't make-believe. People say I sit and try. But when it comes to being De La, it's just me myself and I. It's just me myself and I. It's just me myself and I.
BIANCULLI: That's from the album "3 Feet High And Rising." The group was known for sampling widely from Steely Dan, Ben E. King, George Clinton, Lee Dorsey, Liberace and others. De La Soul's members were middle class and suburban, from the Amityville area of Long Island. Their music offered an accessible alternative to the grittier, urban version of rap. David Jolicoeur, or Dave, founded De La Soul while still in high school with his friends Kelvin Mercer, otherwise known as Posdnuos, and Vincent Mason, known as Mase. They were discovered by DJ and producer Prince Paul. They produced eight studio albums. Their album "3 Feet High And Rising" is in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Terry Gross spoke to Dave and Mase in 2000.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Let me play something from the first De La Soul record, "3 Feet High And Rising." And this is "Three Is The Magic Number" (ph). I mean, we're talking about what what kids listen to. And on this CD, you pay tribute to a type of kids song I imagine you grew up with, which is "Multiplication Rock." And so this is - this kind of takes off from there. Let's hear it. This is "Three Is The Magic Number" (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAGIC NUMBER")
DE LA SOUL: Got to have soul.
(Singing) Three, that's the magic number. Yes, it is.
(Singing) It's the magic number.
(Singing) Somewhere in this hip-hop soul community was born three - Mase, Dove and me. And that's the magic number.
What does it all mean?
(Rapping) Difficult preaching is Posdnuos' pleasure, Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart - something that stimulates the music in the measure, measure in the music, raised in three parts. Casually see but don't do like the soul 'cause seein' and doin' are actions for monkeys. Doin' hip-hop hustle, no rock 'n' roll, unless your name's Brewster, 'cause Brewster's a punk.
(Rapping) Parents, let go, 'cause there's magic in the air, criticizing rap shows you're out of order. Stop, look and listen to the phrasing, Fred Astaires. And don't get offended while Mase do-si-dos your daughter. A tri-camera rolls system is now set. Fly rhymes are stored on a DaISY production. It stands for da inner sound, y'all, and y'all can bet that the action's not a trick, but sure 'nough a function.
What does it all mean?
(Rapping) Everybody wants to be a DJ. Everybody wants to be an MC. But being speakers are the best. And you don't have to guess. De La Soul posse consists of three. And that's the magic number.
(Rapping) This here piece of the pie is not dessert, but the course that we dine. And three out of every darn time, the effect is mmm when a daisy grows in your mind. Showing true position, this here piece is kissin' the part of the pie that's missin', where that negative number fills up the casualty. Maybe you can subtract it. You can call it your lucky partner. Maybe you can call it your adjective. But odd as it may be, without my one and two, where would there be my three? Mase, Pos and me - and that's the magic number.
What does it all mean?
(Rapping) Focus is formed by flaunts to the soul.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's from De La Soul's first CD. It was really refreshing, I think, to hear rap that was ironic and really playful. And I'm wondering if you were almost afraid to do that then, because it was so different from the kind of more hardcore rap that took itself really seriously.
VINCENT MASON: No, we weren't afraid. I mean, that's really where we come from. That's what we knew. So that's...
DAVID JOLICOEUR: Yeah.
MASON: ...What we knew to implement in our music.
JOLICOEUR: It was an innocence. We paid no mind to what was happening all around us. I mean, you know, the people that we were we admired and looked up to were the Run-DMCs and the Public Enemies and the...
MASON: LL Cool Js.
JOLICOEUR: ...LL Cool Js and KRS-Ones. And, you know, none of these groups sound anything alike. You know, everyone was doing their own thing. So to step into the game or even try to introduce our game - ourselves to the game was like, OK, well, we're bringing our own thing to light also. And there was an innocence there that, you know, paid no attention to fads, what was in, you know, what was selling and what was not and what wasn't. It was just, you know, a couple of kids just getting together and having a good time and just giving a product to a company that had bigger plans for it, you know? And that's why it was with us. So, I mean, to sit back and really analyze the situation and say, wow, are we going to make it; is this going to is this going to be accepted or what have you? - that was no concern of ours.
GROSS: Not only didn't you want to go along with fads, you had a song on that CD called "Take It Off"...
GROSS: ...In which you urged people to throw away throw away stuff that was faddish, whether it was...
GROSS: ...You know, clothing or ideas. Yeah.
JOLICOEUR: Yeah, definitely. I think, you know, that's one of the things that we did try to, you know, make the - obviously, the highlighted theme of "3 Feet High And Rising," into era was just, you know, individualism, you know, people expressing themselves, you know, the way that they choose - you know, if you want to cut your head - cut your hair bald, if you want to grow dreads, if you want to put parts, if you want to braid or what have you, you know? Just because everyone's rockin' Afros, that doesn't mean you can't go against the grain. You know, we all have our own interpretation of what fashion is in style, and why not express it, you know? And that's where it was at with us.
GROSS: Why don't we hear just a little bit of "Take It Off"?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE IT OFF")
DE LA SOUL: Take it off. Take that Kangol off. Please. Take it off. Please. Take that Jordache off. Please. Take it off. Please. Take that Afro off. Please. Take it off. Take that jheri curl off. Take it off. Please. Take that Le Tigre off. Take it off. Take those acid-washed jeans, bell-bottom, designed by your mama off. Please? Please.
GROSS: That's more music from De La Soul's first CD, "3 Feet High And Rising." My guests are two of the three members. What's the range of reactions you got to that first CD, which was filled with humor and irony and - we'll get to this later - with samples from just all kinds of different music.
JOLICOEUR: I mean, people loved what we did. I mean, I have to honestly say that's my favorite, and it probably will be the best album that I felt like we've ever done. Like I said, there weren't no - there weren't any boundaries. We were just some young kids having a good time, and people respected it for that. It was like, wow, these guys aren't really, you know, afraid to give themselves a hundred percent, whether you thought it was childish, whether you thought it was funny or whether you thought it was ingenious, it was just - you know, people accepted it.
People was like, wow, I always wanted to do something like that, but I just was afraid to put it on - you know, on tape. I always wanted to sample that, but I didn't think it would work. And, you know, it was always good to hear, you know, the toughest of the tough, you know, the gangsters, the - you know, someone like a KRS-One at our first release party, you know, like, just praising us. Like, wow, De La Soul, you guys are incredible. This is crazy. Or DMC from Run-DMC having to get to our first show that we ever did was like, yo, I got to be here, front row. I got to be right in the front, you know? And it was like - it was good to see those people that, you know, went out and bought records, you know, for years, just loving what we did. It was excellent.
JOLICOEUR: Then, on top of that, meeting people throughout touring through the years and telling us, you know - like, one guy approached me telling me that he met his wife buying "3 Feet High And Rising," and...
MASON: Yeah, and other people saying that - you know, you guys, you know, if it wasn't for you, I was - you know, I was going to commit suicide, and...
JOLICOEUR: And stuff like that.
MASON: You know, things like that are always good. So aside even from, you know, our peers in the game itself, you know, just people as a whole, just, like, kind of - "3 Feet High and Rising" was some sort of a magnet to people just opening up. So, you know, it's a good feeling to hear things like that.
GROSS: Did you think anything was misinterpreted?
JOLICOEUR: I think the only thing that maybe was misinterpreted - that people kept classifying us to be hippies - you know? - when we didn't really have an understanding of what that was all about, you know? It was cool...
GROSS: I wonder how much of that just came from the design on the album jacket. It's got, like, daisies on it and...
JOLICOEUR: Yeah, I think it came from the design.
MASON: Yeah. People misinterpreted the look, you know? I mean, I think people thought that we were going out trying to, I guess, advertise ourselves as, you know, this fun-loving, you know, '60s hip-hop group. And I was born in the late '60s. I knew nothing about, you know...
JOLICOEUR: I'm a '70s baby myself (laughter).
MASON: You know? So I think that's the only thing that kind of, like, got at us, was, like, you know, when it came down to publicity and advertising the record, people always wanted us to take pictures with flowers and make sure you wear yellow and lime green. And, you know, I was like, you know, well, I want to wear brown today, you know? So it was that kind of a thing that was kind of a bit annoying.
GROSS: The samples on that first CD included Steely Dan, Liberace, Otis Redding, the Jarmels, who did "A Little Bit Of Soap." "Stand By Me," I think, is sampled on it, the Ben E. King record. There's a French language instruction record. How did you know all these records?
JOLICOEUR: Parents' record collections.
JOLICOEUR: That's really what it was. I mean, I was kind of hung up in the funk era and reggae era with my parents and uncles and stuff, and...
MASON: And my parents were listening to Perry Como, Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr. and...
GROSS: Really (laughter)?
MASON: You know, stuff like that, and...
JOLICOEUR: And Pos' parents have a real strong Southern background.
JOLICOEUR: So they listen to a lot of Otis Redding and...
JOLICOEUR: You know, a lot of stuff that was on this popular station called ABC back in the day.
GROSS: Oh, Home of the Good Guys. Yeah, right.
JOLICOEUR: Yeah. Well, we got, you know...
MASON: And then, of course, Prince Paul, who collected stuff like "Multiplication Rock" and Mickey Mouse records and, you know, all sorts of kiddie records like that. So just, you know, the - you know, everybody bringing their forth (ph) into it made "3 Feet High And Rising" what it was.
GROSS: So these are records that you really liked, even if you like some of them for being really bad, I mean, for just really being so awful that they were fun?
MASON: Oh, yeah. You - I mean, you're always going to find something. I - you know, it's not every record. I mean, there are a lot of records that are in our crates that, you know, are just, like, you know, just for one thing. But that one thing makes it special. And that Liberace record...
MASON: I'm not going to sit here and say that I listen to Liberace all day, but, you know, that introduction was just incredible, you know? And that worked for De La Soul. It was like - you know, that had to go on the record.
GROSS: Well, I think we'd better hear the Liberace sample.
MASON: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLUG TUNIN'")
LIBERACE: And now for my next number, I'd like to return to the classics, perhaps the most famous classic in all the world of music.
DE LA SOUL: The first time around, you didn't quite understand our new style of speak. Don't worry. We can fix that right now. So why don't you all just grab your bags? Come on board, hoist the anchor, and we'll be off. Plug one. Plug one.
GROSS: That's from De La Soul's first CD, "3 Feet High And Rising." My guests are two of the three members of the group, Dave and Mase. So when you started sampling, I'm wondering if you started shopping for records in a different way than you ever did before, just looking for cool things to put on your own records.
MASON: What's so funny - the method of shopping for records was kind of, like, really different. I mean, it's like that for a lot of hip-hop artists. We sometimes are clueless of the artists and what music they play and what instruments or what type of music it is. Sometimes we just - we're looking at a couple of things. We're looking at the year. We're looking at what instruments are being played. We're looking at the font on the record. If it looks like it's psychedelic, that might have something different. If it looks jazzy, it might have - you know, we're looking at a lot of other things more than who the musician is and what the songs are, you know? It's funny how we shop for records. It really is. It's - you know, you're looking for certain labels. You - like I said, you're looking for the font on the album cover. And you're looking for the year.
GROSS: Do you mostly go to used record stores and look for vinyl? Or do you use CDs for sampling too?
JOLICOEUR: I personally look for vinyl due to the fact that I'm a DJ and I highly support vinyl. And when I am DJing, I like to put a lot of obscure scratches into what I'm doing sometimes, let alone playing some of these old records. You know, some of these old records that I've been looking for, like a King Floyd record or Otis Redding record that I would love to play in a party - like, to play this certain break in a party or something like that and then go into my next tune. So I'm highly supportive of shopping for vinyl. It's just a DJ thing.
MASON: It is, I think, just, you know, seeing how many - how much more records you can just load into that garage that's already looking like some sort of a...
JOLICOEUR: Record store (laughter).
MASON: You know? A record junkyard, you know?
JOLICOEUR: Yeah (laughter).
MASON: It's just - it's always a good feeling also to just crack that new plastic and then put something on that turntable and hope that you find the most incredible, you know, horn section or drum loop or - it's just exciting.
BIANCULLI: David Jolicoeur and Vincent Mason, also known as Dave and Mase, speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U CAN DO (LIFE)")
DE LA SOUL: Come on. Come on. Bounce. Bounce. Come on. Bounce. Rock. Roll. (Singing) You can do whatever you want...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with two members of the influential hip-hop group De La Soul, David Jolicoeur and Vincent Mason, popularly known as Dave and Mase. David Jolicoeur died Sunday at age 54.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: How did you guys meet in high school?
MASON: I met Dave in English class.
JOLICOEUR: Yeah, with Ms. Scahan (ph).
MASON: Ms. Scahan (laughter).
JOLICOEUR: We just met each other in school. Mase was a popular DJ in the neighborhood. He came out of Brooklyn and came into Amityville and started doing a lot of parties here and there and coupling up with a lot of rappers in the neighborhood and when we were all doing it just for a hobby, just for - doing our little basement parties here and there. And he was a popular DJ at the time. Myself and Pos were rapping in the basement, making tapes with our own group. And then we just, like, started hearing about each other. And one day, it just actually meshed where it was like, OK, let's try something. Let's make a tape. And that's it was about back in the days, making a tape at home, seeing if you could come up with your own little songs, and then maybe somewhere down the line going to a party and performing and just young kids stuff.
MASON: And I met Pos in the party scene in Amityville.
GROSS: What was the party scene in Amityville like?
MASON: Basement parties, back out parties.
JOLICOEUR: Dark basement parties and...
MASON: Dugout parties (laughter).
JOLICOEUR: The little red light bulb. And there's like a basement filled with maybe like 70 people and everybody dancing. All the dancers were out at the time. And then backyard parties in the summertime. People would throw backyard party, speakers, and they'd fill their backyard and...
MASON: I mean, that was back when I was DJing. And I was also playing slow records.
JOLICOEUR: They don't play slow jams at the parties anymore.
GROSS: I'm wondering if either of you had parents who were very political - and not necessarily voting booth politics, but just in terms of having a kind of political social analysis of of class and race in America and if they talked to you a lot about that.
JOLICOEUR: I think we grew up with parents who just, you know, had, you know, moral backbone. It was like, you know, I'm not sending my kid out in the street looking any old way. I'm not going to send my kid out in the streets or into school, you know, not knowing how to speak, you know. I mean, yeah, we heard curses around the house, but you know that that's where it was - that's where you kept it and that's it. And if mom or dad cursed, it was mom and dad cursing. I wasn't the one that's supposed to follow right behind or say it out in the streets or say it to anyone else. You know, my parents were very strict. And, you know, if we got out of line, you know, we got dealt with also.
And, you know, it just carries on. You know, at the time, you know, you're like, oh, mom and dad or mom or whoever, you know, their pains or what have you. But it paid off. And I - you know, it doesn't necessarily take, you know, mom and dad in the household. Perfect example is Mase. And it's like, you know, seeing how his mom was and, you know, just being in a small part of his life and how his mom seemed to be as a person, it's like Ms. Mason raised us, myself, Pos. You know, it's like, you know, when you - when we weren't at home with our parents, she was there making sure that we were in order, you know. So I could imagine how it went down in his house.
MASON: I grew up in a single-parent home. You know, I come from a lot of the struggle that these rappers talk about. I've been on welfare. I've lived from house to house. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment, putting milk on the windowsill. And, you know, regardless of all the trials and tribulations I've been through with my mom, my mother's my hero. You know, she struggled. And she struggled to really provide a good life for me and my brother. She did everything possibly under the sun to make sure that we've had a pretty stable life, you know, working odd jobs as well as having public assistance.
JOLICOEUR: Yeah. And sometimes it goes just farther than just putting food on the table. I mean, you know, after they put food on the table, they made sure that you held the fork the right way and, you know, you didn't stuff your mouth like a...
MASON: Instill those values in my head.
JOLICOEUR: And those things were more important than, you know, her working a 12-hour shift or what have you, my mom and my dad trading up on shifts and, you know, you babysit them, then while I'm going away - it's like, you know, a lot of things - a lot of other things were important to them, too. So that's kind of what molded us to be the people that we are today.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
JOLICOEUR: Thanks for having us.
BIANCULLI: De La Soul members David Jolicoeur and Vincent Mason, popularly known as Dave and Mase, speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. David Jolicoeur died Sunday at age 54. Beginning March 3, the music from the first six albums by De La Soul will be available for streaming for the first time. After a break, science writer Ed Yong explains how animals perceive the world differently than humans. And film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Emily" focusing on novelist Emily Bronte before she wrote "Wuthering Heights." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting for Atlantic magazine on the first year of the pandemic, science writer Ed Yong shifted his focus. Instead of examining the catastrophes and tragedies caused by COVID, he moved on to a facet of the natural world he hoped would bring some joy to his life and to his readers.
The result is his book, "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us." Last month, it was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Excellence. It's almost like science fiction or the supernatural in that it describes the worlds that animals, birds and insects perceive which humans can't - the sounds, smells, colors, vibrations, echoes and magnetic fields that exist beyond the limits of our senses. As he puts it, every animal, including humans, can only tap into a small fraction of reality's fullness. The book is about the diversity of perception in the animal world and the limits of human perception. Ed Yong spoke with Terry Gross last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Ed Yong, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
ED YONG: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: So your book is about how every animal, including us, is enclosed within its own sensory bubble, as you put it, perceiving but a tiny sliver of an immense world, which leads to the word umwelt, which is a word I'm sure you'll be using. So why don't you describe what it is?
YONG: So umwelt was popularized by a German biologist named Jakob von Uexkull. The word comes from the German for environment, but von Uexkull wasn't using it to mean the physical environment. He meant the sensory environment, the unique set of smells, sights, sounds and textures that each animal has access to and that might be unique to it, its own little bespoke sliver of reality.
So I'll give you an example. Like, humans can see colors ranging from red to violet, but we don't - we aren't able to see the ultraviolet colors that actually most sighted animals can perceive. We can't detect the magnetic field of the earth that songbirds and sea turtles can. We can't detect the ultrasonic frequencies that bats use to navigate around them or that rats and mice use to send messages to each other that we can't hear. So every creature has these sensory limitations and is enclosed in its own particular sensory bubble. And that's what the umwelt is.
GROSS: Where are you now?
YONG: I am in my home in D.C. I am in the recording studio/shoe closet...
YONG: ...Of my bedroom, or as my wife calls it, our shoe-deo (ph).
GROSS: OK, so it's not exactly a rich sensory environment. But if you...
YONG: It is not.
GROSS: If you were one of the animals you were writing about, or insects or birds, what might you perceive in this studio/closet that you can't perceive now?
YONG: So at the start of the book, I do this - exactly this thought experiment, right? I imagine that I'm - a human is sharing a physical space with a bunch of creatures - say, a rattlesnake, an elephant, a mouse, a dog. It's hard to imagine all of those in this shoe closet with me. But if we do, then the rattlesnake, for example, will be able to sense my body heat. Even if I switched off the light in this closet, it would be able to detect my presence from the infrared radiation I was giving off.
A bird in this closet, even though it was surrounded by walls, would be able to detect the magnetic field of the earth and would know which direction to fly if it was time to migrate. A dog - if my own dog, Typo, who's a corgi, was in this room, he'd almost certainly be sniffing around. He'd be picking up the odors that are abounding in the space and that I cannot detect. So each of these creatures - we could all be sharing exactly the same physical space and have a radically different experience of that space. And that's what "An Immense World" is about. It's about going through these adventures, these sensory voyages, by considering the umwelt of other animals.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about vision. You mentioned ultraviolet light, which we cannot see. All the colors we see are based on three colors - blue, yellow and red, although I really don't understand exactly...
YONG: Red, green and blue.
GROSS: Red, green and blue - wait, I thought green was blue and yellow.
YONG: So you're thinking about primary colors, like with paints. For light, it's different. So with light, it's based on red, green and blue.
GROSS: No kidding. Really? Oh, I didn't know that. OK. So we see red, green and blue.
YONG: Yes, we have three kinds of color-sensitive cells in our eyes that are most sensitive to red, green and blue.
GROSS: So what are we missing? Like, for insects that can see - or butterflies, I guess, that can see ultraviolet light - what are we missing, for instance, in flowers, which are beautiful enough with what we can see, but what are we missing?
YONG: So flowers absolutely are extraordinarily beautiful. But if you had the ultraviolet vision that a bee has, you'll be able to see patterns on those flowers that we can't see. So a sunflower, for example, far from looking just a matte uniform yellow, would have a stark ultraviolet bull's-eye at its center. A lot of flowers have these ultraviolet shapes like arrows and bull's-eyes to guide insects towards the pollen at their center. Some predators that eat pollinating insects, like crab spiders, blend in when - blend in against the flowers to our eyes, but really stand out when viewed in ultraviolet. And that acts as a lure to insects. It draws them in towards the waiting spider.
One of my favorite things about the relationship between insect vision and flowers is that if you took all the colors in all the flowers that were out there and you asked what kind of eye, what kind of color vision is best at discriminating between these colors, what you get is an eye that's basically almost what a bee has, an eye that is maximally sensitive to blue, green and ultraviolet. And you might think then that the bee eye has evolved to see the colors of flowers really well. And that's exactly the opposite of what happened, because the bee eye came first. The flowers evolved later. And so the colors of flowers have evolved to ideally tickle the eyes of bees.
And I think that's a truly wondrous result. It means that beauty as we know it, is not only in the eye of the beholder. It arises because of that eye. Eyes, in viewing nature's palettes, also affect its paintings.
GROSS: Oh, it's really form follows function.
YONG: Yes. Right.
GROSS: So what exactly is UV light? I mean, we know it's used to, like, sanitize things, and, you know, like my electric toothbrush has a UV light in the little cleanser unit. But in terms of vision, like, what is it and why can't we usually see it? Like, the UV light in my toothbrush thing, when I turn it on to clean the toothbrush, I see blue. Maybe that's just a blue lightbulb. I don't know.
YONG: Yeah. Right. That's the blue part of the light that you can see. So our - we can see light ranging from red to violet, right? It's the classic rainbow of colors that we can perceive. Ultraviolet - literally beyond violet - exists beyond the violet end. It's just off its edge. Now, there's a huge range of UV light that includes the stuff that causes sunburn and that, you know, we use to sanitize our world. But there's also a section of it near UV that exists quite close to that violet that we can see that effectively paints nature. You know, it's there in flowers, like we've said. It's there on the feathers of birds. And most other animals that can see color can see that UV. We didn't used to think that. We used to think that it was special, that seeing ultraviolet was rare. And that, I think, reflects how much the limits of our own senses affect our view of the world.
We think of things that have different umwelt, that see differently to us as being extraordinary, whereas, in fact, often they are very typical. So, you know, many - most birds can see ultraviolet; most insects can do it. A lot of other mammals can do it. We're actually quite weird in not being able to see ultraviolet. For a long time, scientists used to think that ultraviolet was a sort of secret communication channel that animals used to send coded, like, hidden messages that other creatures could not see. Sometimes that is the case.
There are, for example, fish that look completely uniform yellow. But if you look at them through ultraviolet, you see that they have, like, distinct patterns on their faces, almost like running mascara. But in the main, those messages aren't secret because most animals can actually see them. Ultraviolet abounds in the world around us, and there's just a ton of stuff that we're missing. You know, there are loads of birds, for example, including common backyard birds, where we think the males and females look exactly the same, but they all look very different to each other because they can see the ultraviolet patterns that distinguish the sexes.
BIANCULLI: Science writer Ed Yong speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "ACROSS THE CRYSTAL SEA")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2022 interview with science writer Ed Yong. His latest book, "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us," won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence last month.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's talk about echolocation. Why don't you explain what it is?
YONG: Echolocation is a very advanced form of hearing that a lot of animals like bats and dolphins use to perceive the world around them. So they make high-pitched ultrasonic calls beyond the range of human hearing. And they listen out for the echoes of those calls after they've rebounded off objects around the animal. And by listening for those echoes and passing those echoes, they get a sense of the world around them. A bat in complete darkness can find, track and swoop upon a flying insect. It can navigate through the darkness of a cave. It can wend its way around obstacles, all by using this incredibly sophisticated type of hearing.
GROSS: Can we compare the bats' echolocation with an animal that is really, really different, dolphins? Because they use echolocation, too. They're different in terms of the environment they live in, their size, their needs. So could you compare them?
YONG: Yes. Bats and dolphins are the two masters of echolocation in the animal kingdom. And in some ways, they use it to similar purposes. But the difference between them is mostly because dolphins are echolocating in the water. Their calls travel much further. And so for them, echolocation is a much longer range sense than it is for bats. A bat can only really detect a small moth within several feet in front of it. A dolphin's echolocation can extend much, much further. And that allows dolphins, for example, to use echolocation to coordinate their movements, to coordinate their hunting strategies over the distance of an entire pod.
Dolphins can also use echolocation kind of like a medical scanner. They can detect hard surfaces that exist inside other animals. You know, a dolphin echolocating on a human could likely see your skeleton, could likely see your lungs. Dolphins can, through echolocation, detect the swim bladders inside the fish that they hunt. They can probably tell the difference between different kinds of prey by the shape of their swim bladders. So they have this incredible see-through ability, but except it's not really to do with vision, right? It's to do with sound.
GROSS: So I have a cat. And a really interesting thing I learned about cats is that they have muscles in their bellies that sense vibration. Can you elaborate on that?
YONG: Right. So many animals have vibration-sensitive cells in their organs of touch. So, you know, I have them in my fingertips, for example. It seems that cats have that on their bellies. And one scientist I spoke to, you know, had this hypothesis. Like, if a cat is laying down in a crouch, you know, is it also sensing the vibrations caused by possible prey, you know? When we see a lion watching a herd of antelope in the distance, is it also getting information through the crouch about the footsteps of those prey?
Now, I want to be very clear. We don't know the answer to that question. And it might be entirely far-fetched speculation. I write about it in the book specifically because I think it's the type of question we should be asking because a lot of people, including scientists who work on the senses, neglect the world of vibrations, the world of seismic tremors that course through the ground and surfaces along us. You know, we care when those vibrations move through the air. We call them sounds. But when they move through surfaces, we tend to ignore them. Except a huge number of animals - scorpions, moles, elephants - many insects seem to pay attention to that vibrational world. And I think if you really start thinking about it and looking at it, you know, you learn incredible things about nature that you might otherwise have missed.
GROSS: I really like the way you end the book. And you write about how most people think of, you know, the majesty of nature as being like canyons and mountains. But you write, equating wilderness with otherworldly magnificence treats it as something remote, accessible only to those with the privilege to travel and explore. It imagines that nature is something separate from humanity rather than something we exist within. Can you talk about that realization?
YONG: Yeah. This speaks to my earlier point that if you start thinking about the umwelt of other animals, you understand that nature's magnificence is all around us. It's in our backyards. It's in our gardens. You know, it's in the bodies of some of the most familiar creatures around us - my dog, the pigeons on the street. I think that if we think of nature as something remote and distant, you know, accessible only to someone who can go to a national park, we lose the impetus to savor and to protect it. I think if you understand instead that nature is everywhere, that you can go - I can go on an adventure just by thinking about the sensory world of the sparrow that sits on the house opposite me, I think then nature feels like something close to me, close to my heart and close to my life. And I feel like if that's the case, people will be more motivated to try and protect it.
You know, protecting nature isn't just about, like, saving whales or pandas or what have you. It's about protecting even things that are close to us. And - because each of those things has a unique way of experiencing the world that is worth learning about, worth cherishing and worth protecting.
GROSS: Ed Yong, it's been a pleasure to have you back on the show. Thank you so much.
YONG: Thanks, Terry. Always a pleasure talking to you.
BIANCULLI: Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Ed Yong speaking to Terry Gross last year. His latest book is "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews Emily, the new film dramatizing the life of Emily Bronte before she wrote Wuthering Heights. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has a review of the new movie "Emily," which he describes as a richly imagined portrait of the novelist Emily Bronte in the years before she wrote "Wuthering Heights." The movie stars Emma Mackey as Bronte and marks the directing debut of the actress Frances O'Connor. Here is Justin's review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Given that there are few activities less inherently cinematic than writing, I'm surprised and heartened by how many good movies I've seen in recent years that have convincingly entered the lives and minds of authors. I'm thinking of "A Quiet Passion," the Emily Dickinson biopic, and "Shirley," about "The Haunting Of Hill House" author Shirley Jackson. You don't spend a lot of time watching these women scribbling with their quills or banging away at their typewriters. But you do get a rich sense of how their artistic sensibilities came into being.
The latest fine addition to this group is "Emily," which freely speculates about the life of the 19th-century English writer Emily Jane Bronte in the years before she would write her one and only novel, "Wuthering Heights." The movie takes significant liberties with what is known about Emily and her famous sisters, Charlotte and Anne. But as a non-stickler for biopic accuracy, I didn't mind. True or false or somewhere in between, this is an engagingly detailed and emotionally truthful portrait of a family of artists. Every character and actor leaves a vivid impression.
Emily is strikingly played by Emma Mackey, the French British actor known for her work on the series "Sex Education." She was also the best thing in the recent remake of "Death On The Nile." Mackey has the kind of searing gaze that cuts right through any period piece decorum. And that makes her perfect for the sardonic, self-amused Emily. She's neither as sweet as her younger sister, Anne, nor as well-behaved as her older sister, Charlotte, who's memorably played by Alexandra Dowling. Charlotte is studying to be a teacher and wants Emily to do the same, mainly to please their strict clergyman father. But Emily's natural talent is for inventing stories and writing poetry, and also for speaking her mind with a boldness that leaves others unsettled. There's a dark side to Emily, and it emerges whenever she mentions her mother's long-ago death, something the others don't like to talk about.
Of all her siblings, Emily is probably closest to her fellow misfit brother, Branwell, an aspiring painter played by Fionn Whitehead. Their bond becomes even stronger after Branwell drops out of art school and sinks into alcoholism and opium addiction. One day, while they're walking the Yorkshire moors, she notices three words inked on his arm - freedom in thought, a creed that also becomes her own.
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EMMA MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) Don't let Aunt B see that.
FIONN WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) I don't care if she sees it or not.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) Freedom in thought.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) Yes, but you can't say it, though. You have to shout it. (Shouting) Freedom in thought.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) What are you doing?
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) You try.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) No. You're being silly.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) I'm deadly serious. Come on.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) No. Someone might hear us.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) Yeah, they might. (Shouting) Freedom in thought. Freedom in thought. Try it.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) Freedom in thought.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) Oh, Pathetic attempt. (Shouting) Freedom in thought. Come on. Really get behind it.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte) Freedom in thought.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) Come on. Give it some welly. (Shouting) Freedom in thought.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte, shouting) Freedom in thought.
WHITEHEAD: (As Branwell Bronte) Emily Jane, I think Reverend Miller might have just fallen off his chair in the rectory. Good. (Shouting) Freedom in thought.
MACKEY: (As Emily Bronte, shouting) Freedom in thought.
CHANG: And so "Emily" tells a familiar-but-compelling story of a woman rebelling against the expectations of her religious and image conscious family. In her biggest breach of convention, she falls into a torrid romance with William Weightman, the handsome young curate who assists her father in his church duties. Emily and William, played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, initially loathe each other, which makes it all the more affecting when they surrender to their passion. Their affair is clearly laying the narrative framework for the forbidden love between Catherine and Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights." That idea might sound overly simplistic, especially if, like me, you chafe at the notion that great art can only emerge from direct autobiographical experience. But even if the movie plays hard and loose with the facts - some have speculated that there was a romantic connection between Anne Bronte and William Weightman - Mackey and Jackson-Cohen bring so much heat and conviction that their love story sweeps you up in its wake. But as magnetic as Emily and William are together, their bond isn't the only one of note here.
I've rarely seen a movie this attuned to the emotional complexity of sibling relationships, especially between Charlotte and Emily, whose mutual exasperation never obscures the depths of their sisterly love. "Emily" marks an excellent writing and directing debut for the actor Frances O'Connor, who's appeared in her own share of English literary adaptations like "Mansfield Park" and "The Importance Of Being Earnest." Her witty-but-unfussy script is rife with echoes of "Wuthering Heights," which means it often plays like a ghost story. Much of the movie is set in dim candlelit interiors, including one terrifying scene in which an innocent game among the Bronte siblings becomes a disturbing kind of seance. O'Connor keeps her camera tightly fixed on Emily, even at her most anguished moments, when she seems to be teetering on the brink of madness. Maybe she is, but maybe it takes a little madness to create a work of art, including a movie as good as this one.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic of the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Emily," now in theaters. On Monday's show, for President's Day, we speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert Caro about the life of Lyndon Johnson. To understand his subject, Caro moved to the Texas hill country for three years to meet friends and associates of Johnson from his early years. At age 87, Caro is still working on the last volume of his Johnson biography. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. We'll close with this music by New Orleans rock 'n' roll pioneer Huey "Piano" Smith, who died Monday at the age of 89. He wrote and first performed this hit, which has been recorded by many others since. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' NUEMONIA AND THE BOOGIE WOOGIE FLU")
HUEY "PIANO" SMITH AND THE CLOWNS: (Singing) I want to jump, but I'm afraid I'll fall. I want to holler, but the joint's too small. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got a rocking pneumonia and a boogie woogie flu. Want some loving, baby, that ain't all. I want to kiss her but the gal's too tall. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got a rocking pneumonia and a boogie woogie flu. I want to scream. I want you all to know. I would be running but my feet's too slow. Young man rhythm's got a hold of me too. I got a rockin pneumonia and a boogie woogie flu.
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