Sunday, January 7, 2024

Book Review: Underbug

Termites exist at the intersection of biology, chemistry, ecology, engineering, and perhaps even philosophy. In Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology, author Lisa Margonelli masterfully weaves all of these elements together, and then some. She manages to remain in that sweet spot between total participation in the story, and complete detachment, never overtaking the spotlight of her subjects, both insectian and human, but still revealing the personal impacts of where her investigations took her. She maintains empathy with the reader while taking them on a globe-trotting journey.

Underbug has more to say about humanity than you would expect in a book ostensibly about insects, let alone insects we consider economic pests. This is about where curiosity and imagination can take you. It ventures from the microscopic world of termite gut fauna to the megascopic, landscape-writing engineering of millions of diminutive members of a termite colony. How are they so successful? How can we harness their power to digest cellulose and use it to manufacture “grassoline?” What lessons exist for how to reclaim an abandoned mine and turn it back to its native grandeur?

It may be cliché to say that a book has something for everyone, but this one truly does, provided you are prone to a fascination with science, or relish contemplating the planet and our own place on it.

The book is divided into six parts, each one set off by a black-and-white illustration that gives the impression, appropriately, of a woodcut print (they are linoleum block prints by Thomas Shahan). The dust jacket has intentional holes in it, as if the book has already been “digested” by its very subject. How perfect. Margonelli manages to have a reverence for both termites and science, but never comes off as preaching or dogmatic. There is humor here and there, and the prose are descriptive enough to put you right in the center of things.

As a failed academic myself, I felt overwhelmed occasionally by the mathematics, genetics, and technological aspects of the stories (there are several), but remained captivated by the human characters and, of course, the mysteries of the insects.

Margonelli ultimately questions the accepted scientific course of the abstraction of natural processes, whether it has its limits, or if it is even a potential failing of our own species. Are we too attached to the idea that every other species, every habitat, serve us first, to justify its existence?

Without giving too much away, the conclusions reached are, as one might expect, inconclusive; for termites exist at the intersection of the known, the unknown, and the unknowable. Sometimes the biggest question for a researcher or engineer is when to give up.

Underbug was published in 2018, by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. It is 303 pages, including notes and index. This is as much an adventure book as it is a revealing glimpse into what defines science in the twenty-first century. Highly recommended.

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