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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Science is “a shared experience, subject both to the best of what creativity and imagination have to offer and to humankind’s worst excesses”. So wrote the guest editors of this special issue of Nature, Melissa Nobles, Chad Womack, Ambroise Wonkam and Elizabeth Wathuti, in a June 2022 editorial announcing their involvement.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.