Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth by Mark S. Blumberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked up this book for an odd–and potentially disconcerting–reason. I sweat when I work out. I know that everyone sweats while active, but for me it’s preternatural. It’s at a level that has the potential to be a superpower, if I had any control of it. I’ve finished muaythai sessions with the ring floor looking like it’d rained inside—granted Thailand takes humidity to its heights, but still. I was hoping to gain some insight into what this anomaly was all about. After reading the book, I can’t say I have any greater insight on the issue. However, having lived in the tropics for over three years now, I’ve recently begun to notice that my level of sweating seems normal—at least within a range acceptable for our species.
There are nine chapters. The first examines the basics of heat. While the examples are zoological, the substance is largely what one would study in an introductory physics class—sans the math. Chapter 2 dips more into the biology, considering the various ways in which organisms achieve an ideal temperature. The third chapter explores the role that temperature plays in impregnation, gestation, and genetic information transfer.
Chapter 4 explains how various creatures work internally to create a comfortable temperature. It’s related to chapter 2, but the second chapter deals more with external regulation, i.e. animals’ interaction with their environments. Besides explaining the human need to control the brain’s temperature, chapter 4 explores how birds who keep their feet in chilly water manage to keep from getting hypothermia. In the next chapter, Blumberg considers various ways in which animals fight the cold. There’s an extended discussion of Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT)–a fat that is particularly useful in generating heat–that was interesting.
Chapter 6 raises an intriguing question: should one take fever reducer when one develops a fever? Obviously, a fever can become so high that one needs to combat it, but here we’re talking about a fever of a level that won’t cause any long-term harm. Chapter 7 discusses a range of heat related topics including the connection between spiciness and the feeling of heat and the evolution of language related to heat, but the chapter is mostly about the thermal dimension of sex.
Chapter 8 is about how our body regulates fat so that it can be used both as an energy reserve and as insulation, and what can go wrong with the process. The final chapter addresses the thermal dimension of sleep. If you’ve ever woken up soaked in sweat or chilled, it may have occurred to you that our thermal regulation doesn’t work as usual through sleep.
There is a point in the Introduction that reads as though the author is calling Tibetan Buddhists monks charlatans, and that seems both harsh and offensive. However, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he used an example in unfortunate juxtaposition to his charlatan comment—which is well taken. He’s referring to monks who wrap themselves in wet sheets in subfreezing conditions. His point is that it’s not a suspension of the laws of physics that the monks don’t end up with hypothermia—true enough. The monks’ point is likely that it’s a tremendous challenge to be able to maintain a tranquil mind under such conditions, which I would argue is true as well.
There are only a few graphics, and they consist of tables, line drawings, and photos. There is an extensive bibliography that is organized by chapter.
The Kindle version of the book that I have has some formatting irregularities. However, they didn’t really detract from the reading experience, and will probably be corrected in newer editions. [But it wasn’t an ARC, so the formatting should have been finalized.]
I found this book to be interesting, and I learned a lot from reading it. It’s an important topic, but for many it won’t be a subject that one thinks of learning about in isolation. If you are interested in finding out more about the many ways in which animals (humans included) are influenced by temperature, I’d recommend you give this book a look.
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