radio review

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The Independent Culture
The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in a celebrated essay entitled "What is it like to be a bat?", noted that "...anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life." He's right, up to a point - bats are unlike us, just as all animals are unlike us. But it's misleading to think of them as alien in a way that, say, a dog isn't. What makes them seem so different is that they lie outside the range of our senses. Relying on daylight for our picture of the world, we can't ever see bats properly, or not in their natural element, flickering about the dusk; we can't hear them properly, either, their twittering pitched too high for our ears.

Last night's Twilight, a new Radio 4 series which sends Joanna Pinnock to watch animals after sundown, offered something faintly magical: the sound of bats - specifically, greater horseshoe bats (the "aristocrats" of the bat world, we were told, which hang from roofs rather than crawling into crevices), their cries transformed electronically into a fluttering eddy of audible squeaks. The sound wasn't exactly evocative, almost by definition, since the only noise that would really conjure up these bats would be one you couldn't quite hear; but it provided a plaintive and fascinating background to Dr Bob Stebbings' rhapsody on bats: after 35 years of watching them, he thought this was "the most wonderful sound on earth."

Pinnock managed some effective word-painting, describing the bats twisting, turning and sweeping, playing tag across the sky. The really memorable bits came from Dr Stebbings, though. He sees bats as not so different from humans: he told a devastatingly sad story of watching, through a hidden camera, a mother bat fussing over the corpse of its baby, forcing the other bats to come and look. He showed us bats, in fact, with the eyes of love, and these transformed them into something mysteriously charming, even beautiful.