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Under The Microscope

A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES, by Diane Ackerman; Vintage Books; 332pp; $32.95

Reviewed by Vicki Hyde

This is a book for savouring, and no wonder -- the author is a award-winning poet. Not the most likely candidate for a book chockful of science, you may expect, but a line of Diane Ackerman's poetry has stayed with me for many, many years: Carl Sagan quoted her in Cosmic Connection:

kneedeep in the cosmic overwhelm

Ackerman's use of language is delightful, though it does mean that this exploration of the traditional five sense plus synethesia, takes you a while to get through. Her prose is so redolent of the senses themselves that you want to take the time to savour each of the essays and give them time to sink into the mind. It's intentional, as the self-described sensuist admits:

we still perceive the world in all its gushing beauty and terror right on our pulses

To understand that perception and the consciousness that lies behind it, Ackerman contends that we need to understand how the sense evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are and what they can teach us about the world. She's done a fine job -- we need more poets in science.

Vicki Hyde is the editor of New Zealand Science Monthly.