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In the Dark: The Science of What Happens at Night

by Lisa Deresti Betik and Josh Holinaty (ill.)

Just before the pandemic hit, Netflix released Night on Earth, a six-part, David Attenborough–style nature documentary with a simple yet engaging twist: all of its action happens after the sun goes down. It’s a clever conceit. The darkness and quiet of the nighttime imbues even the smallest event – a mouse on the hunt for food or a flower opening its petals in the moonlight – with mystery and suspense.

Waterloo, Ontario, author Lisa Deresti Betik explores the lure of the nocturnal world in impressive depth in her debut non-fiction book, In the Dark. The volume covers a lot of territory – not just the animals and plants that thrive in the dark but also the science behind sleep, sleepwalking, dreaming, snoring, the movement of the stars and planets, and the nature of night itself.

There is a lot to digest in Betik’s book, but it never bogs down. The story of Randy Gardner, a teenager who broke the Guinness World Record for sleeplessness in 1964, leads naturally to explanations of circadian rhythms, the stages of sleep, and the various theories for why we dream. The chapter on nocturnal creatures goes way beyond the usual bats-are-cool statements to in-depth discussions of feline night vision, how spiders know what has landed in their webs, and why some animals (dolphins, for example) are able to put half their brain to sleep while the other half stays awake.

The sheer amount of information occasionally threatens to turn the book into something resembling an overstuffed PowerPoint presentation, but Betik provides more than enough far-out facts to keep readers engaged. Her research is complemented by the very approachable layout – which is dense but not cluttered – and the visuals by Toronto illustrator Josh Holinaty, who employs a twilight colour palette (lots of black, obviously, but also multiple shades of blue, purple, etc.) to create an otherworldly effect. (Some of the images are downright poster-worthy.) Holinaty also creates miniature graphic stories to illustrate some information, giving extra drive and energy to what, in less skilled hands than his and Betik’s, could easily have been a snooze.