In Review

Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich – a ‘rich and strange’ book

This ‘deft cultural history of slime’ shows that our ‘prejudice’ against it is unfounded

Most people have a natural aversion to slime, said Simon Ings in The Times. Yet according to the German biologist Susanne Wedlich, this wondrous substance deserves closer attention. Slime, she tells us, “holds the world together”. For not only is it present just about everywhere in nature, but it is the very “source of life”: had “stiffened water” not existed early in our planet’s history, then cell development and multiplication – the processes that led to our existence – would never have been possible. 

Slime is stuffed with facts of the “surely that can’t be real?” variety, said Mark Mason in the Daily Mail. Hagfish defend themselves by jellying the water around them, causing even sharks to gag. There’s a species of squid that “confuses predators by shooting out several slimy replicas of itself”. And we learn, too, of a snail that uses slime trails to select its partner – a useful form of “advertisement-by-slime”, Wedlich notes, since such creatures “rarely meet by chance, and speed-dating is out of the question”.

Wedlich, who defines slime as “water caged in a three-dimensional structure”, shows that our “prejudice” against it is unfounded, said Steven Poole in The Daily Telegraph. Without slime, we wouldn’t be able to breathe, because our lungs use it to extract oxygen from air. In our bodies and in nature it has multiple functions: it acts as a lubricant, a glue and a barrier.

Slime, remarkably, can even think – or, “at least, slime moulds have been shown to solve mazes, and in one famous experiment connected a set of nodes in a way eerily similar to the actual Tokyo subway map”. Both a “deft cultural history of slime” and an “exegesis of its science”, this is a “rich and strange” – and compelling – book.

Granta 336pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Slime book cover
The Week Bookshop

To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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