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    Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion: “Ending Epidemics is an important book, deeply and lovingly researched, written with precision and elegance, a sweeping story of centuries of human battle with infectious disease. Conniff is a brilliant historian with a jeweler’s eye for detail. I think the book is a masterpiece.” Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Archive for the ‘Biomimicry’ Category

How a Seashell Helped Deaf People Hear

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2010

I’ve written often here about the remarkable ways shellfish have altered the course of human history.  So I was intrigued to see a recent interview about how a shell inspired the invention of cochlear implants.  It appears in the Aussie magazine Cosmos, where I am an occasional contributor.  Here’s an excerpt:

During one Melbourne summer in 1977, he took his young children to the beach to escape the heat. While they were playing in the shallows, Clark noticed a seashell lying on the ground – and that its helical structure was a crude replica of the human cochlea.

Inspiration hit. He pulled up some grass blades and experimented with teasing them into the shell’s opening. Owing to their flexible tips and stiff bases, the blades slid smoothly into the tightening spiral. It revealed a simple solution to a complex problem.

Rushing back to the lab, he confirmed that wire electrodes following the same design as a grass blade would solve his problem. Designed with progressive stiffness, the electrodes could be made to travel the length of the cochlea, all the way to the nerve cells that code for speech.

This design is now the basis of the hugely successful cochlear implant, a small surgical implant that simulates hearing for the deaf by stimulation of the auditory nerve to reproduce speech. Today, more than 200,000 people have received cochlear implants in more than 100 countries.

Here are some other interesting examples of human interactions with shells.   They’re excerpts from a story I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine about shell madness, parts one, two, three, four, and five.  Better yet, check out chapter four, “Mad About Shells,” in my new book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W.W. Norton, November 1).

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