Saturday, December 12, 2009

Peter Forbes' "Dazzled and Deceived"

Peter Forbes is a UK-based science writer. The Gecko’s Foot (2006) explored the new world of bio-inspiration: engineering solutions taken from nature. He writes for many magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and Scientific American.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage, and reported the following:
My new book, Dazzled and Deceived, tells the story of mimicry and camouflage in nature, art and warfare, beginning in the Amazon rain forest in the 1850s and coming up to date.

Page 99 finds us in the thick of the great Dazzle-painting controversy of World War I. Dazzle paint was a system of zebra-like stripes applied to merchant ships to confuse the aim of submarine torpedo gunners. It was introduced in 1917 by Norman Wilkinson, a British marine artist and naval officer. But after the war his claim to the invention was disputed by a Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr who, three years before Wilkinson, had proposed a system of camouflage based on the work of the American painter and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer. Thayer was a dogmatic, unstable figure who discovered the law of countershading (how the pale colouring on the bellies of some animals flattens their form and obscures their identity) and drove himself to desperation in trying to convince the military authorities that he had the key to the use of camouflage in war.

The struggle between the Thayer/Kerr principles and Wilkinson’s Dazzle was played out in a Royal Navy enquiry in 1919. Kerr advocated Thayer’s countershading principle, derived from nature, to try to make ships invisible. But Wilkinson’s jangly patterns were a form of op-art, 50 years ahead of its time (the artistic potential was realised in the great Dazzle Ball at Chelsea Arts Club on 12 March 1919: “brilliant and fantastic”, said the Illustrated London News). These patterns would not melt into the background at any distance. Kerr claimed that nature could teach everything a naval camoufleur would need, Wilkinson retorted that his goal was to confuse a submarine range-finder with respect to a ship’s course, tartly observing: “I am not aware that this occurs in biology, ie disguise of direction.” He was wrong in this because butterfly eyespots are intended to divert the aim of predators.

On page 99 we have reached the verdict: in 1919, as far as the Admiralty was concerned, Wilkinson won hands down. The Thayer/Kerr ideas made a surprising comeback in World War II but for that you need to read beyond page 99.
Learn more about Dazzled and Deceived at the author's website and blog, and at the Yale University Press webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue