Tag Archives: Nature Book Reviews

Reviews: Top New Science Books – November 2022

Book cover of California Burning

California Burning

Katherine Blunt Portfolio/Penguin (2022)

California is having more and more wildfires because of climate change, poor tree management creating fire hazards, and antiquated power lines. In 2018, the failure of a 100-year-old rusted electrical hook sparked the Camp Fire, the world’s most expensive natural disaster that year. The blaze forced Pacific Gas and Electric into temporary bankruptcy. Journalist Katherine Blunt’s disturbing history of California’s environmental calamity ends in 2021, with the company’s new chief executive announcing costly underground power lines.

Book cover of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

The Biggest Ideas in the Universe

Sean Carroll Oneworld (2022)

Theoretical physicist and philosopher Sean Carroll specializes in quantum mechanics, gravity and cosmology. He aims to create a world in which “most people have informed views and passionate opinions” about modern physics. His skilful book, the first of a planned trilogy, covers space, time and motion. Unlike most introductory physics books for the interested amateur, it includes mathematical equations, cogently explained but not solved, as well as the expected metaphorical language.

Book cover of Cancer Virus Hunters

Cancer Virus Hunters

Gregory J. Morgan Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (2022)

One-fifth of cancers in people worldwide are caused by tumour viruses such as hepatitis B. Work stemming from these pathogens won seven Nobel prizes between 1966 and 2020, notes historian Gregory Morgan in his authoritative but accessible chronicle. Yet tumour virology is rarely mentioned in discussions of how molecular biology opened our understanding of cancer. As Morgan observes in his path-breaking history, this inhibits a complete understanding of this field as a technoscientific force.

Book cover of Planta Sapiens

Planta Sapiens

Paco Calvo with Natalie Lawrence Bridge Street (2022)

Humans are so focused on “brain-centric consciousness”, says philosopher of science Paco Calvo, “that we find it difficult to imagine other kinds of internal experience”. Might plants be intelligent (‘sapiens’)? His challenging book is aimed at both believers in this possibility and non-believers. His experiments, such as putting the touch-sensitive plant Mimosa pudica to ‘sleep’ with anaesthetic, provoke thought, as does his note that Charles Darwin requested burial under an ancient village yew, rather than in Westminster Abbey.

Book cover of Ritual

Ritual

Dimitris Xygalatas Profile (2022)

Just before anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas’s university went into COVID-19 lockdown, his students had one main concern: would there be a graduation ceremony? We care deeply about rituals, he notes in his wide-ranging and well-written survey, because they help us to “cope with many of life’s challenges”, even if we do not understand how — the “ritual paradox”. Scientific investigation has been tricky, because rituals do not flourish in a laboratory, but wearable sensors and brain-imaging technology help.

Nature Reviews: Top New Science Books (Oct 2022)

Book cover artwork for Geopedia: A Brief Compendium of Geologic Curiosities

Geopedia

Marcia Bjornerud Princeton Univ. Press (2022)

This is a garnet of a geology book: rooted in the planet, jewel-like and multicoloured. “To geoscientists, rocks are not nouns but verbs — far more than inert curios, they are evidence of Earth’s ebullient creativity,” writes geoscientist Marcia Bjornerud. Her brief A–Z ranges idiosyncratically through landforms, rocks and minerals, geologists, geological terms and time periods, including the Anthropocene, the epoch of human influence. Oddly, it omits the Gaia hypothesis that the planet is a self-regulating system.

Book cover artwork for The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

The Facemaker

Lindsey Fitzharris Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2022)

Following her award-winning 2017 biography of surgeon Joseph Lister, medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris tackles Harold Gillies, a pioneer of plastic surgery. She focuses on his First World War attempts to reconstruct the bullet-butchered faces of British soldiers who had become “strangers even to themselves”. From French battlefields, Fitzharris’s vividly thrilling account moves to the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, UK, which Gillies founded in 1917. An epilogue notes that he was knighted only in 1930, long after the war’s military generals.

Book cover artwork for Security and Conservation: The Politics of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Security and Conservation

Rosaleen Duffy Yale Univ. Press (2022)

The military, intelligence services and tech companies were barely visible at the 2014 London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, recalls scholar of international politics Rosaleen Duffy. By the 2018 conference, they were prominent. This “security turn” in conservation — since intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic’s links to a Chinese wildlife market — drives her timely analysis of a complex phenomenon. A violent approach to tackling poaching might boost elephant numbers, for example, but could also cause human-rights abuses.

Book cover artwork for The Illusionist Brain: The Neuroscience of Magic

The Illusionist Brain

Jordi Camí & Luis M. Martínez (transl. Eduardo Aparcico) Princeton Univ. Press (2022)

The science behind audience perception of magic tricks intrigued late-nineteenth-century researchers. But since then, there have been fewer than 100 research papers on the subject, note pharmacologist Jordi Camí and neuroscientist Luis Martínez in their tantalizing study. Rather than using the brain to explain conjuring tricks, they focus on using illusions to elucidate the brain and behaviour. “When magicians trick us, they are interfering with all of the brain’s strategies for inferring reality.”

Book cover artwork for Plantation Crisis: Ruptures of Dalit Life in the Indian Tea Belt

Plantation Crisis

Jayaseelan Raj UCL Press (2022)

Kerala in India has a reputation for egalitarianism, literacy and high life expectancy. Yet Tamil-speaking Dalit communities are oppressed and marginalized on tea plantations in the state, following a 1990s collapse in the international price of the crop. Jayaseelan Raj, who works in development studies, was born and raised in a Tamil Dalit plantation household. Plantation workers share with him “stories of poverty that they would not share even with their close relatives or neighbours”, as described in his academic study.

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Reviews: Top New Science Books – June 10, 2022

Control

Adam Rutherford Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2022)

When Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the word eugenics in 1883, he called it the study of the conditions under which “men of a high type are produced”. This gross idea led to the gates of Auschwitz, reminds broadcaster Adam Rutherford (an alumnus of the Galton Laboratory, former name of University College London’s human‑genetics centre). It hasn’t gone away, he explains in his timely salvo on the politics and history of notions that dog genetics, events up to and after the ‘CRISPR twins’ and the resurgence of white supremacy.

Dark and Magical Places

Christopher Kemp Profile/Wellcome Collection (2022)

“I have no sense of direction,” confesses molecular biologist Christopher Kemp — unlike his wife, “an effortless and intuitive navigator”. Once, in a mirror maze, he was transfixed with alarm, and had to be pulled out by his seven-year-old son. Many others experience similar disorientation, sometimes with disastrous results, as when hikers get lost. Their stories vitalize this compelling study of the brain, memory and navigation, in which one psychologist compares our understanding of parts of the brain with knowledge of black holes.

When the World Runs Dry

Nancy F. Castaldo Algonquin (2022)

Globally, millions of people must walk up to 6 kilometres daily to get clean water, says environmental writer Nancy Castaldo. Moreover, each year, more children die as a result of water contamination than from violence, including war, said the United Nations in 2019. Castaldo’s alarming book discusses many examples of shortages and tainting, ranging from drought in Cape Town, South Africa, to lead pollution in Flint, Michigan. She concludes with realistic steps to reduce domestic consumption and contamination.

Making Numbers Count

Chip Heath and Karla Starr Avid Reader (2022)

Business scholar Chip Heath and science journalist Karla Starr are familiar with the need to “translate numbers into instinctive human experience”, informatively and memorably. Unable to find a book on the subject, they decided to write their own. Their diverse guide bubbles with translated statistics. For example, there are about 400 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States — that translates into one for every adult and child, with around 70 million left over.

Genetically Modified Democracy

Aniket Aga Yale Univ. Press (2021)

India’s 1960s Green Revolution began without much deliberation. The government promoted high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, and guaranteed purchase prices. This helped “already well-off, landed farmers”, notes environmentalist Aniket Aga, but led to huge debts for the struggling majority. When genetically modified crops reached India in 2002, they cultivated much more scrutiny, involving scientists, seed companies, farmers, consumers and the state. Aga describes the debate, without claiming to provid

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Reviews: Top New Science Book Picks (Nature)

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A Molecule Away from Madness

Sara Manning Peskin W. W. Norton (2022)

Even before COVID-19 increased the risks of cognitive impairments, it had been estimated that 152.8 million people globally would be living with dementia by 2050. Yet treatment for Alzheimer’s disease has hardly improved since it was discovered in 1901, notes neurologist and dementia specialist Sara Manning Peskin. Now, most clinical trials tackling dementia are “deeply rooted in molecular data”. Peskin’s powerful study — immersed in her patients’ stories — analyses neurology’s attempt to reach oncology’s molecular understanding.

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The Insect Crisis

Oliver Milman Atlantic (2022)

Insect decline is obvious — but hard to quantify. Environmental journalist Oliver Milman suggests a drop of more than 90% in some places, in his vivid alarm call. The causes are unclear, but include habitat destruction by intensive farming, pesticide use and climate change. Insects’ “intricate dance” with Earth’s environment makes them crucial to human food supplies. We should learn to eat them, not meat, suggests Milman: that will help to save them by freeing farmland from crops needed to feed livestock.

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Insulin — The Crooked Timber

Kersten T. Hall Oxford Univ. Press (2022)

Insulin was first used to treat human diabetes 100 years ago, after it was isolated by two medical scientists in 1921. Historian of science Kersten Hall describes this transformative event, together with insulin’s development as the first drug produced by genetic engineering and its lucrative exploitation — using a blend of profound research, lively writing and personal knowledge of diabetes. He argues that the history is a tale not of geniuses or saints, but rather one of “monstrous egos, toxic insecurities and bitter career rivalry”.

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How to Solve a Crime

Angela Gallop Hodder & Stoughton (2022)

More than a century ago, criminologist Edmond Locard established forensic science on the principle that “every contact leaves a trace”. The field’s current sophistication and contribution to justice would be beyond his “wildest imaginings”, writes forensic scientist Angela Gallop. She tells gripping stories from her own and others’ experience, beginning with thirteenth-century Chinese investigator Sung Tz’u. He identified a farmer’s killer by asking fellow villagers to put their sickles on the ground; flies alighted on one blade bearing traces of blood.

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The Sloth Lemur’s Song

Alison Richard William Collins (2022)

Anthropologist and conservationist Alison Richard has been absorbed by Madagascar for half a century. She writes that the country’s “animals and plants offer a wonderful array of rabbit holes down which a person fascinated by the natural world could disappear for a lifetime”. Why, for example, does its largest lemur sing spellbindingly across the treetops with its mate for many minutes? And what environmental conditions created the island’s unique — now disastrously threatened —