Feathers Author Thor Hanson Tickled By Audience

Thor Hanson

Thor Hanson

We recently sat down with Thor Hanson, author of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, and asked him about his experience at literary events.

BIC: What are some of the “teachable” moments in your latest book, Feathers, that make it work well for a literary events program, especially those for college students?

TH: Feathers works well for literary events because it draws on so many different interests.  A discussion of feather colors can start with Aztec tapestries, move on to the fashion industry, touch on the physics of pigments and iridescence, and end up at a Las Vegas show, where the dancers’ costumes attract the eye in the same way as a bird’s plumage. Similarly, the aerodynamics of feathers take you from the evolution of flying dinosaurs straight through the Wright Brothers and on to bio-mimicry, the hottest new trend in engineering.  One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching about feathers is seeing people’s surprise at the many ways they touch our lives.

BIC: Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at literary events that you’ve participated in?

TH: Literary events are more than lectures — they are an exchange of ideas.  I once had a university student ask me if owl flight was still silent when the birds were molting — would the wing still be muffled when it had a big feather gap?  I’d never thought of it before and told her I didn’t know, but it would make a terrific Masters thesis!  A few weeks later I brought it up at another event and there happened to be a zookeeper in the audience who took care of owls and knew the answer (yes, molting owls are noisy fliers).  I’ve had similar exchanges with artists, writers, other scientists, and people who’ve made amazing observations of nature in their own backyards.  I’ll never forget speaking at a one-room schoolhouse on a small rural island.  Most of the community was there, someone had made muffins, and they had to fire up a generator so we could watch the slides.  But there was nothing provincial about that audience — they knew the wildlife of their island intimately, and their questions and insights were spot on.

BIC: Over the years, you’ve no doubt heard a wide range of questions from readers concerning feathers, gorillas (the subject of your first book, The Impenetrable Forest), and other scientific topics you write on. What are some of the most memorable or favorite questions you’ve received?

 The question and answer period may be my favorite part of literary events.  After all, when you write about natural history one of the primary themes is curiosity, communicating that sense of wonder that underlies all science. I was once talking about gorillas at a high school in Washington D.C., and the discussion turned to threat postures and eye contact.  One of the boys in the class raised his hand and said it was exactly the same out in the halls of the school.  When certain guys walked past you looked at the floor — if you met their eyes there would be a fight.  He understood it exactly — that’s primate behavior! On a lighter note, someone once asked me how my life would be better if I had feathers.  I had to admit that I probably couldn’t put them to use nearly as well as a bird.  After all, I’m too heavy to fly and I’ve already found a mate!  They would be incredibly handy in the field, however.  I would save a bundle on sunscreen and rain gear, and I wouldn’t need to bring a sleeping bag.

Feathers, which is a fascinating and thought-provoking study of the unique history behind the evolution of feathers (they date back more than 150 million years!) has won numerous awards and was described by the New York Times as “gracious, funny, persuasive, and wide ranging.”  Thor Hanson’s style as a presenter is just as compelling.

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