"It has been said that the primary function of schools is to impart enough facts to make children stop asking questions. Those with whom the schools do not succeed become scientists." So begins Knut Schmidt-Nielsen in his autobiography "The Camel's Nose," a fascinating reflection on his life and more than forty years of studies and adventures in locations ranging from the Sahara Desert to the Arctic Circle.One of the world's most prominent animal physiologists, Schmidt-Nielsen has throughout his career sought answers to seemingly simple questions: How can camels go for days without drinking? Do marine birds drink seawater? Why don't penguins' feet freeze? How do animals find food and water in the desert? By asking questions about the animals around us, we learn more about who we are, and the answers Schmidt-Nielsen discovered have not only helped us understand animals, but have provided us with insight into fundamental principles of life and survival.In "The Camel's Nose," Schmidt-Nielsen relates the story of his life and work, interweaving tales of his childhood in Scandinavia and his personal and professional struggles in the United States with first-hand accounts of field work in Africa, Australia, and around the globe. He recounts how he sought out peculiar problems of animal form and function and details his remarkable discoveries. He also provides a glimpse into the personal life of a world-renowned scientist, from the rewards and difficulties of growing up in a family of scientists to the challenges of his early career to the redeeming power of love later in life."The Camel's Nose" reveals a passionate curiosity for seeking out and finding answers. The reader is fortunate toshare in Schmidt-Nielsen's lifelong quest and to be given an inside look into the life of a scientist who has witnessed the better part of a century of breathtaking discovery and change.
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So begins the autobiography of Knut Schmidt-Nielsen, professor emeritus of physiology and zoology at Duke University, who looks back on a life devoted to comparative physiology in its largest and most interesting sense. Now in his 84th year, Schmidt-Nielsen has received numerous international awards for his contributions to physiology. His writing is lucid, lively, and conversational. His textbook on comparative physiology reads like a novel. It is no surprise that he was the originator and first editor of the provocative and popular periodical News in the Physiological Sciences.
Schmidt-Nielsen's life provides evidence of the effects of both heredity and environmental influences on the development of a scientist. His grandfather, an engineer, was fascinated by the question of whether saltwater flounders could live in freshwater lakes. His father was an accomplished Norwegian enzyme chemist, a protege of the brothers Eduard and Hans Buchner; Eduard received the Nobel prize in 1907. Schmidt-Nielsen's Swedish mother had been an outstanding student of the physicist Svante Arrhenius, another Nobel prize winner, but she regretfully abandoned her promising scientific career when she married. His postgraduate mentor was the Danish physiologist August Krogh, who also received the Nobel prize and whose daughter, Bodil (later an eminent renal physiologist), Schmidt-Nielsen married and then divorced. Thor Heyerdahl, who later crossed the Pacific on a bamboo raft, was a school classmate. And his most memorable teacher at school (in natural history and science) was Viggo Ullmann, the remarkable grandfather of the actress Liv Ullmann.
The questions Schmidt-Nielsen asked are deceptively simple, almost childlike. They resemble Rudyard Kipling's questions in his Just So Stories for children. (Schmidt-Nielsen tells us that the favorite author of his mentor Krogh was Kipling.) How do camels survive in the desert? Why does the camel have a long nose? Why don't a duck's feet freeze on the ice? How do a penguin's eggs stay warm? How does the herring gull get rid of salt? The answers are fascinating, and to find them the author has journeyed from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara and the Australian outback. One of the attractions of comparative physiology is the opportunity to explore exotic places. The author describes these adventurous trips with such gusto that the reader may be forgiven for suspecting that the chance to travel might sometimes itself be a reason for asking a fascinating question about the adaptation of life to a harsh environment.
In an era when departments of physiology in many medical schools are disappearing or changing their names to include the up-to-date modifiers "cellular" and "molecular," it is oddly refreshing to be reminded of the great questions, with their flavor of teleology and purpose, that have been considered central to the Queen of Sciences for at least two centuries. How animals adapt to a hostile environment is the underlying question that has always motivated the physiologic inquiries of Schmidt-Nielsen. Marine birds, snakes, and lizards, living in a salty ocean, secrete unbelievably high concentrations of salt through glands located around the eyes and nose. The large ears of desert jackrabbits stand up and radiate heat, cooling the animal, as long as air temperatures are lower than body temperature, but wilt and fold up when the air gets hotter, so as not to absorb heat. Countercurrent flow of blood through the capillaries of the Arctic duck's webbed feet keeps the feet from freezing and the duck from getting cold. The nasal and respiratory passages of the camel are lined with hygroscopic mucus, which dries out when the animal breathes in and then recovers moisture from expired air, thus considerably reducing insensible losses of water. To a physician accustomed to the narrow confines of human biology, reading about these insights of comparative physiology that teach us the way bodies work is an experience like that of Alice stepping through the looking glass or of a child reading about the Wizard of Oz.
Schmidt-Nielsen's life has been complicated as well as interesting. He is frank about his times of self-doubt, depression, and fierce professional competition and jealousy, and about his disappointments as well as his loves. These personal touches, told with disarming frankness, add to the charm of the memoirs of a scientist who never lost the curiosity of his childhood.
Reviewed by Franklin H. Epstein, M.D.From Publishers Weekly:
As one of the 20th century's foremost animal physiologists, Schmidt-Nielsen, professor emeritus at Duke University, had a major impact on how questions are asked and answered by modern biologists. Over the course of his stellar career, Schmidt-Nielsen has consistently probed the evolutionary adaptations that animals have made to their environment, most often focusing on odd animals in extreme conditions. It was he who demonstrated how behavior and physiology come together to enable the kangaroo rat to survive extreme desert temperatures without drinking any water. He also showed that the camel's nose is actually a well-developed organ designed to ensure that only minuscule amounts of moisture are lost during respiration. Schmidt-Nielsen is at his finest when describing many of the numerous experiments he has undertaken in locations as varied as the Brazilian rain forest, Arctic islands and an oasis in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Through his tales, he imparts a great deal of noteworthy biological information as well as insight into the scientific process. His scant autobiographical material suffers from a competent but dry prose style as well as from an apparent reluctance to probe beneath the surface of his emotional life. Despite the unevenness, however, there is much here to delight those interested in science, as Schmidt-Nielsen's enthusiasm for investigating how organisms make their way in the world proves thoroughly contagious. Editor: Laurie Burnham.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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