The goal of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe is to bridge the gap between popular-science treatments of modern physics and true expert knowledge. This is the real stuff — equations and all — presented in a way that presumes no prior knowledge other than high-school algebra. Readers will come up to speed about exactly what professional physicists are talking about, with an emphasis on established knowledge rather than speculation.
Volume One, Space, Time, and Motion, covers the domain of classical physics, from Newton to Einstein. We get introduced to Spherical Cow Philosophy, in which complications are stripped away to reveal the essence of a system, and the Laplacian Paradigm, in which the laws of physics take us from initial conditions into the future by marching through time. We learn the basic ideas of calculus, where we can calculate rates of change and how much of a quantity has accumulated. We think about the nature of space and time, separately and together. Finally we are introduced to the mysteries of non-Riemannian geometry and Einstein’s theory of curved spacetime, culminating into a dive into black holes.
Rarely have I heard of a book with a weirder title, but Grant explains this book about how animals think is actually as useful as it is interesting. “A dazzling, delightful read on what animal cognition can teach us about our own mental shortcomings,” he writes. “I tore through his book in one sitting. I dare you to read it without rethinking some of your basic ideas about intelligence.” (It’s out August 9th.)
2. The Neuroscience of You by Chantel Prat
“Move over, outer space–this book is a stunning tour through inner space. This neuroscientist has a rare, remarkable gift for making neurons sing and dendrites dance. She’s written the smartest, clearest, and funniest book I’ve ever read about the brain,” Grant enthuses about The Neuroscience of You. (Out August 2nd.)
3. What We Owe the Future by Will MacAskill
Grant isn’t the only public thinker raving about this book by an Oxford philosopher about our “moral responsibility to do right by our grandchildren’s grandchildren.” “This book will change your sense of how grand the sweep of human history could be, where you fit into it, and how much you could do to change it for the better. It’s as simple, and as ambitious, as that,” says Ezra Klein. (Out August 16th.)
4. Longpath by Ari Wallach
Next on the list is another book about long-term thinking (apparently a preoccupation of Grant’s at the moment). He explains his second pick on the topic this way: “This book is an antidote to nearsightedness. A futurist offers an actionable guide for planning multiple generations in the future.” (Also out August 16th.)
5. Both/And Thinking by Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis
This book by a pair of business school professors is specifically aimed at leaders trying to navigate uncertain times. “Life is full of paradoxes, and too often we ignore them or try to erase them when we should be learning how to manage them. Two top scholars of paradox examine how to embrace tensions and overcome tradeoffs,” says Grant. Fellow business writer Tom Peters is more succinct: “This book is, pure and simple, a masterpiece.” (Out August 9th)
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
Most of us are aware of the hive mind—the power of bees as an amazing collective. But do we know how uniquely intelligent bees are as individuals? In The Mind of a Bee, Lars Chittka draws from decades of research, including his own pioneering work, to argue that bees have remarkable cognitive abilities.
He shows that they are profoundly smart, have distinct personalities, can recognize flowers and human faces, exhibit basic emotions, count, use simple tools, solve problems, and learn by observing others. They may even possess consciousness. Taking readers deep into the sensory world of bees, Chittka illustrates how bee brains are unparalleled in the animal kingdom in terms of how much sophisticated material is packed into their tiny nervous systems.
He looks at their innate behaviors and the ways their evolution as foragers may have contributed to their keen spatial memory. Chittka also examines the psychological differences between bees and the ethical dilemmas that arise in conservation and laboratory settings because bees feel and think. Throughout, he touches on the fascinating history behind the study of bee behavior. Exploring an insect whose sensory experiences rival those of humans, The Mind of a Bee reveals the singular abilities of some of the world’s most incredible creatures.
It is 20 years since journalist Fiona Fox set up the influential Science Media Centre in London, to persuade more scientists to engage with the media. This absorbing, detailed book is her memoir of that period — not, as she makes clear, an “objective record”. Separate chapters deal with controversies such as “Climategate”, “Frankenfoods”, the politicization of science, sexism in research and how the current pandemic epitomizes an “age-old dichotomy” between the need for simple public messaging and the messy complexity of science.
Lucy Cooke Doubleday (2022)
“Try explaining the need to be passive” to a female spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), writes zoologist and author Lucy Cooke, “and she’ll laugh in your face, after she’s bitten it off”. She is dominant in rough play, scent‑marking and territorial defence. By analysing numerous animals, this sparkling attack on scientific sexism draws on many scientists — of multiple genders — to correct stereotypes of the active male versus passive female. Many such concepts were initiated by Charles Darwin, who is nevertheless Cooke’s “scientific idol”.
Marina Umaschi Bers MIT Press (2022)
Early-childhood technologist Marina Bers developed the KIBO robot, which young children can program with coloured, barcoded wooden blocks to learn computer coding. It is the chief character in her engaging book, which presents four key ways to consider coding for kids: as a “playground”; “another language”; a “palette of virtues”; and a “bridge”. The palette includes infusing ethics and moral education into programming. The bridge involves finding points of connection between diverse cultural, ethnic and religious groups.
Robert A. Jacobs Yale Univ. Press (2022)
The Japanese word hibakusha originally described the victims of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power-plant disaster, the term has been widely extended to denote worldwide victims of radiation exposure. Yet it does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary: evidence that “these ‘global hibakusha’ have been largely invisible to us”, because of their relative political insignificance, notes Hiroshima-based historian Robert Jacobs in this grimly important analysis of the cold war.
Travels with Trilobites
Andy Secher Columbia Univ. Press (2022)
The fascinating marine invertebrate known as a trilobite belongs to the beginning of complex animal life. It appeared some 521 million years ago, and endured for more than 250 million years, evolving more than 25,000 recognized species. Palaeontologist Andy Secher coedits the trilobite website for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He owns more than 4,000 trilobite fossils, many of which are pictured in this paean to “the omnipresent monarchs of the world’s ancient se
May 2, 2022 – Our food system is a rich, complex blend of biology and culture. From the biodiversity in forests, oceans, and farms to the living weave of long-standing traditions and emerging trends, food touches every aspect of life on Earth. This diversity hasn’t always carried through to agricultural and culinary literatures, but fortunately this is changing. Fresh perspectives are emerging in the literary discussions of food, addressing a range of topics and cuisines. In 2022, Science will share this tapestry in a limited podcast series on science and food. Hosted by journalist Angela Saini, the series will highlight books from around the world that intersect with this theme. A different book and its author will appear monthly on the Science podcast, beginning on 26 May 2022.
Together, the books discussed in these segments expose an entanglement of biology, culinary science, and culture. In Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, Dan Saladino addresses biodiversity loss and the future of food. Saladino covers vast swaths of time and space, taking us from wild honey gatherers in Africa to rare Orkney barley as he demonstrates that species loss is linked to cultural loss.
Food literatures also demand that we confront ourselves and our blind spots. T. Colin Campbell’s The Future of Nutrition: An Insider’s Look at the Science, Why We Keep Getting It Wrong, and How to Start Getting It Right explores the evidence of the health benefits of plant-based diets. Crucially, this book exposes the cultural and political inertia protecting animal protein from scrutiny, reminding us that scientific research is never detached from society.
On this week’s show: How physicists are using quantum sensors to suss out dark matter, how rabies thwarts canine vaccination campaigns, and a kickoff for our new series with authors of books on food, land management, and nutrition science
Dark matter hunters have turned to quantum sensors to find elusive subatomic particles that may exist outside physicists’ standard model. Adrian Cho, a staff writer for Science, joins host Sarah Crespi to give a tour of the latest dark matter particle candidates—and the traps that physicists are setting for them.
Next, we hear from Katie Hampson, a professor in the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow, about her work contact tracing rabies in Tanzania. Her group was able to track rabies in a population of 50,000 dogs over 14 years. The massive study gives new insight into how to stop a virus that circulates at superlow levels but keeps popping up, despite vaccine campaigns.
Finally, we launch our 2022 books series on food and agriculture. In six interviews, which will be released monthly for the rest of the year, host and science journalist Angela Saini will speak to authors of recent books on topics from Indigenous land management to foods that are going extinct. This month, Angela talks with Lenore Newman, director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, who helped select the books for the series.
Andrew Robinson reviews five of the week’s best science picks.
Timothy J. Jorgensen Princeton Univ. Press (2022)
The use of electricity in medicine has long been controversial, notes health physicist Timothy Jorgensen. Eighteenth-century polymath Benjamin Franklin applied shocks to paralysed muscles with temporary success. In the 1930s, neurologist Ugo Cerletti pioneered painful but effective electroconvulsive therapy for schizophrenia and depression. Yet even today, “no one is sure exactly how ECT works”, says Jorgensen in his brilliant book. Now, business magnate Elon Musk plans to implant computer chips to treat brain disorders.
The New Fire
Ben Buchanan & Andrew Imbrie MIT Press (2022)
Artificial intelligence (AI) is not like electricity, but like fire, say Ben Buchanan and Andrew Imbrie — academic specialists in emerging technology — in their authoritative, coruscating analysis of its current and future significance. Its potential impact ranges from illuminating to catastrophic, according to three rival and sometimes overlapping views from observers whom they label “evangelists, warriors and Cassandras”. “Three sparks ignite the new fire,” say the authors: data, algorithms and computing power.
Paul Morland Picador (2022)
“To most of us, the influence of demography on our future is far from obvious,” writes demographer Paul Morland. City dwellers tend to have low fertility, thereby creating an older population and eventually population decline, which could prompt migration and ethnic change, as in today’s United Kingdom — or might not, as in Japan. Morland’s careful book discusses ten indicators, one per chapter: infant mortality, population growth, urbanization, fertility, ageing, old age, population decline, ethnic change, education and food.
Restarting the Future
Jonathan Haskel & Stian Westlake Princeton Univ. Press (2022)
In the past few decades, growth has stagnated in advanced economies. This is odd, given low interest rates, high business profits and a wide belief that we live with “dizzying technological progress”, write economists Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. They argue that the old economic model based on material production fails when it comes to intangible assets — such as software, data, design and business processes — that hinge on ideas, knowledge and relationships. Financial and state institutions must update to cope.
Carles Lalueza-Fox MIT Press (2022)
Inequality and its origins will always preoccupy humans. In 2014, biologist Carles Lalueza-Fox led the retrieval of a genome from a European forager’s skeleton more than 7,000 years old; his later studies revealed genetic evidence of “inequality and discrimination in different times and periods”, as he describes in this significant book, written during the pandemic. He concludes by observing that COVID‑19 has had an enhanced impact on poor people, which he anticipates will feature in future genetic studies.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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 —