A history of the “search for the solution to the sex and conception mystery,” focused on the period between 1650 and 1900.
As former Boston Globe chief science writer Dolnick (The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853, 2014, etc.) notes at the beginning of his latest book, “not everyone has wondered why the stars shine or why the earth spins,” but “every person who has ever lived has asked where babies come from.” Thoughtful scientists have confidently delivered the wrong answer, and the author provides a delightful history of what happened until they got it right. Everyone knew that an egg was involved, although brilliant anatomists (Vesalius, William Harvey) searched humans in vain. Semen was essential and—as men were considered the superior sex—the most important factor, but its role remained mysterious. When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek turned his microscope on his semen in the 1670s, he believed that each of the innumerable wiggling creatures contained a tiny human. Most scientists disagreed, insisting that the tiny human resided inside the still-unobserved human egg. This was “preformism.” To early scientists, making an embryo from nothing was absurd. More refined experiments and the discovery that cells make up all living things produced impressive advances, but it was not until 1875 that a German biologist who remains mostly unknown (Oscar Hertwig) first saw a single sperm penetrate an egg (of a sea urchin) and fuse with the nucleus, after which the cell began to divide. Researchers then turned their attention to what happens afterward, but, having effectively answered the big question, Dolnick stops there.
The best sort of science history, explaining not only how great men made great discoveries, but why equally great men, trapped by prejudices and what seemed to be plain common sense, missed what was in front of their noses.
A retired British neurosurgeon delivers the follow-up to his well-received debut memoir, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2015).
The author’s first book received rave reviews and sold well. While follow-ups to exceptional first books have a spotty record, readers who open Marsh’s sophomore effort will quickly realize that they are in the hands of a master. Now retired, Marsh looks back over his life and career but mostly recounts his volunteer work in Nepal and Ukraine, extremely poor nations with abysmal medical care. He meticulously describes his successes but, as usual, feels more distress at failures. Ironically, these occur too often because the patients in these countries often believe that doctors can work miracles, so they often insist on surgery even after a careful explanation that it’s unlikely to help. Operating on a cerebral hemorrhage or incurable brain tumor regularly converts a quick death to a slow, miserable one. American readers will note that this belies Marsh’s statement that “only in America have I seen so much treatment devoted to so many people with such little chance of making a useful recovery.” They will also learn of his admiration for American surgeons and his opinion—widely shared—that because they are paid each time they operate, they do so too often. In all his travels, the only nation where the subject of payment has never arisen is Britain. Marsh justifiably rages against elected officials who could eliminate the National Health Service’s most desperate need, money, by raising taxes but don’t because it might endanger their chances of re-election.
Another thoughtful, painful, utterly fascinating mixture of nut-and-bolts brain surgery with a compassionate, workaholic surgeon’s view of medicine around the world and his own limitations. Readers will hope that a third volume is in the works.
A pair of biochemists offer a fresh examination of the “newest and arguably most effective genetic-engineering tool.”
Biological spectaculars—e.g., genetic engineering, cloned sheep, in vitro fertilization—have produced headlines and bestsellers but flopped where it counts: they don’t save many lives. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is changing that, write Doudna (Chemistry and Molecular Biology/Univ. of California; co-author: Molecular Biology: Principles and Practice, 2011, etc.) and Sternberg in this enthusiastic and definitely not dumbed-down account of gene manipulation that, unlike earlier methods, is precise and easy. In the first half of the book, “The Tool,” the authors summarize a century of research but focus on the discovery, in the early 2000s, that bacteria possess an ingenious immune system that destroys invading viruses by cutting their DNA into pieces. Within the past decade, researchers converted this into an ingenious technique for literally debugging DNA: putting in good genes in the place of bad. “Because CRISPR allows precise and relatively straightforward DNA editing,” write the authors, “it has transformed every genetic disease—at least, every disease for which we know the underlying mutation—into a potentially treatable target.” The second half, “The Task,” describes the miraculous powers of CRISPR to cure disease and control evolution—but not yet. Replacing a single defective gene cures muscular dystrophy in mice; clinical trials in humans for this and similar disorders (sickle-cell, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis) are in the works. CRISPR can’t yet cure cancer, prevent AIDS, wipe out malaria, revive the wooly mammoth, or regenerate a limb, but an avalanche of startups (Doudna’s included) is betting billions that it eventually will.
An important book about a major scientific advance but not for the faint of heart. Readers not up to speed on high school biology should prepare themselves with a good popular primer on DNA, such as Matthew Cobb’s Life’s Greatest Secret (2015).
America’s most approachable astrophysicist distills the past, present, and (theoretical) future of the cosmos into a quick and thoroughly enjoyable read for a general audience.
In his signature conversational style, Tyson (Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, 2012, etc.), director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of StarTalk, shows once again his masterly skills at explaining complex scientific concepts in a lucid, readable fashion. In fun, digestible chapters, he covers all the basics: the constituent bits that make up the universe, the forces and laws that govern their interaction, and the pioneering scientists who pieced together the mechanics fabricating our reality. Substituting down-to-earth wit for unnecessary jargon, Tyson presents ideas in clean, straightforward language and allows for the awesome nature of the universe to impress itself on readers unadorned. Also compelling is the author’s contagious exuberance for his field, which he has consistently demonstrated throughout his writing and TV careers. Whether expounding on the general theory of relativity or the mystery of dark matter, he celebrates the many theories that have been experimentally confirmed while acknowledging the grand extent to which there is still so much left to discover. He also emphasizes that astrophysics need not be inaccessible. “The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist,” he writes. “It belongs to everyone….The cosmic perspective enables us to see beyond our circumstances, allowing us to transcend the primal search for food, shelter, and sex.” In short order, you’ll be conversant in mind-bending trivia about “star stuff” that may fundamentally shift your perspective of our place in the universe—and convince you to pursue some of the many fine longer-form books on the subject.
A sublime introduction to some of the most exciting ideas in astrophysics that will leave readers wanting more.
A richly documented history of the rise—and threatened future—of antibiotics.
Before the invention of antibiotics, doctors practiced “heroic medicine,” rebalancing the body’s humors with bloodletting, blistering, purges, enemas, and other primitive techniques. But in the late 1800s came Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, and suddenly the world knew that cholera, plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other maladies were caused by invisible microbes: bacteria. So began the hunt for remedies. There were some successes—antitoxin for diphtheria, a vaccine for anthrax—but competition and venomous rivalries prevailed, pitting Pasteur against Koch, France against Germany. Rosen’s (The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, 2014, etc.) warts-and-all sketches of the key figures serve as refreshing antidotes to the hero-worship texts we read as schoolchildren. The author also deftly contrasts Germany’s synthetic dye industry, which funded research that led to Paul Ehrlich’s Salvarsan for syphilis, with the feeble research support elsewhere. But the real revolution in remedies had to wait until World War II and the rediscovery of penicillin, when British scientists came to America for help in the fermentation process needed to generate copious amounts of the extract. Then came Selman Waksman, who coined the word “antibiotic” and found in a soil sample a bacterial strain that produced its own antibacterial product that worked against TB. The race was on for other useful soil microbes, and numerous drug companies emerged (and merged), from small producers of herbals and botanicals to big-time generators of lucrative broad-spectrum antibiotics. Rosen also charts the course of the FDA and the development of testing and safety protocols. Unfortunately, the current scene is ominous. Antibiotic resistance is serious and continues to grow thanks to low dosages of antibiotics still allowed in animal feeds. Rosen offers some hope regarding new approaches to combat resistance, but they seem meager.
An encyclopedic reference for researchers and practitioners but also accessible for general readers due to Rosen’s lively depiction of the people, places, and politics that color the history of the fight against infectious disease.
In her debut, journalist Kapsambelis builds a compelling narrative about Alzheimer’s disease around one North Dakota extended family.
In sections alternating among sagas of specific families, research in medical laboratories, and sweeping explanations of dementia, the author demonstrates beyond doubt that although Alzheimer’s acquired its name in the early 20th century (first described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906), it has devastated human brains for thousands of years. Much of what used to pass for old-age senility has actually been virulent dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is a specific type. A normal path of this abnormal disease starts with inconsistent memory, moves to the loss of motor skills, and culminates in a drawn-out, heartbreaking death phase. Alzheimer’s can rip apart families, often compromising the physical and mental health of the caregivers as well as the patients. Kapsambelis focuses largely on early-onset Alzheimer’s, which sometimes manifests as early as age 35. By focusing on the DeMoe family of rural North Dakota, the author was able to spend time with family members while they were still lucid. When Gail, an accomplished, lively young woman, married her husband, Galen DeMoe, she had no idea he harbored a mutant gene that would doom him and maybe any children they birthed to early-onset Alzheimer’s and excruciating declines. As detection techniques to spot the specific mutant gene progressed, each of the six children born to Galen and Gail had to decide if they wanted to be tested. Some of the six wanted to know quickly, while others delayed. If they carried the mutant gene, they also had to decide if they would risk having children of their own. In addition to clear discussions of the disease’s history and research, Kapsambelis successfully portrays Gail, Galen, and their extended family as fully fleshed individuals.
An educational and emotional chronicle that should resonate with a wide variety of readers.
The journalist and polymath delivers a delightful exploration of “the deepest idea in the universe.”
Intellectual historian Watson loves big ideas and long books, and publishers keep publishing them and buyers buying them because they’re great reading—no exception here. After 600 pages of The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New (2012), his new book takes on the history of scientific pursuits in just under 500 pages. Passing lightly over its history before the 19th century, the author maintains that discoveries of the conservation of energy and Darwinian evolution in the 1850s began a great convergence where the sheer mass of scientific knowledge has begun “to invade other areas, other systems of knowledge traditionally different from or even opposed to science, and is starting to explain—and advance—them. Science is…bringing order to philosophy, to morality, to history, to culture in general, and even to politics.” The “soft” sciences—i.e., psychology, economics, sociology—are growing “hard.” Ethologists studying animals have quantified the devastating effects of defective parental care, and child psychologists, formerly dependent on Freud, have taken note. Today, physicists advise investors, and historians and politicians ignore science at their peril—but do it anyway. The origin of life itself has moved from a hypothesis featuring implausible chemical reactions in ancient pools to a matter of convergence. Watson argues that life, as well as consciousness, culture, even morality, may be inevitable under certain conditions. Accepted in the scientific community, convergence remains controversial among philosophers, literary critics, and some sociologists who claim that scientific knowledge is overrated, culturally determined, and only one of many ways to describe reality.
Those who reject the idea of convergence outright may not get far in this book, but readers with no objection to a sweeping, entirely fascinating history of science during the last 200 years will find an abundance of enlightening material.
A sweeping environmental history of the Gulf of Mexico that duly considers the ravages of nature and man.
In light of the 2010 devastation of the BP oil spill, environmental historian Davis (History and Sustainability Studies/Univ. of Florida; An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century, 2009, etc.) presents an engaging, truly relevant new study of the Gulf as a powerful agent in the American story, one that has become “lost in the pages of American history.” Once the habitat of the highly developed, self-sustaining Calusa indigenous people, the rich estuary of the Gulf is the 10th largest body of water in the world, and it forms the sheltered basin that creates the warm, powerful Gulf Stream, which allowed the first explorers, such as Ponce de León, to make their ways back to the Old World. Davis meanders through the early history of this fascinating sea, which became a kind of graveyard to many early marooned explorers due to shipwrecks and run-ins with natives. Yet the conquistadors took little note of the abundant marine life inhabiting the waters and, unaccountably, starved. A more familiar economy was established at the delta of the muddy, sediment-rich Mississippi River, discovered by the French. The author focuses on the 19th century as the era when the Gulf finally asserted its place in the great move toward Manifest Destiny; it would “significantly enlarge the water communication of national commerce and shift the boundary of the country from vulnerable land to protective sea.” The Gulf states would also become a mecca of tourism and fishing and, with the discovery of oil, enter a dire period of the “commercialization of national endowments.” The story of this magnificent body of water and its wildlife grows tragic at this point—e.g., the “killing juggernaut” of Gulf wading birds to obtain fashionable feathers. Still, it remains an improbable, valiant survival tale in the face of the BP oil spill and ongoing climate change.
An elegant narrative braced by a fierce, sobering environmental conviction.
Fifteen birds of prey lead the author on an enthralling journey across the British Isles.
When William MacGillivray (1796-1852) published his History of British Birds in 1845, a fellow ornithologist was lavish with praise: “There is a peculiar mountain freshness about Mr. MacGillivray’s writings, combined with fidelity and truths in delineation, rarely possessed by Naturalists, and hitherto not surpassed.” Literary agent Lockhart’s elegant, engrossing literary debut deserves equal acclaim. Buoyed by MacGillivray’s journals and books, particularly his first, on rapacious birds, Lockhart evokes in precise, vibrant detail every aspect of the fascinating predators and their habitats. Although their behaviors vary, all raptors share startlingly acute vision. Humans have about 200,000 photoreceptor cells; birds, 1 million. Like binoculars, their eyes magnify images by around 30 percent. “Birds of prey,” writes the author, “see the whole twitching world in infinite, immaculate detail.” And their world is vast. Ospreys, for example, spend winters in the mangrove swamps of West Africa, flying thousands of miles across the Sahara to arrive in Britain to breed. Peregrine falcons, “specialist” predators that prefer “medium-sized avian prey,” return to the same nest sites each year, guided by droppings left from the previous year’s young. In the mid-1950s, agricultural pesticides reduced the supply of calcium carbonate in the peregrine’s tissues, leading to thin, fragile eggshells; thankfully, a ban on the pesticide reversed the plummeting population. As their numbers increased, some relocated, bringing wildness into cities. Lockhart admires the power of the soaring golden eagle; the devious pursuit of sea eagles, who badger other birds to make them “spill their catch”; and the mesmerizing aerial acrobatics of the red kite, which “can suddenly turn on a sixpence.” The author admires the determined, prickly MacGillivray, as well, now forgotten in favor of his collaborator and friend James John Audubon. They formed, Lockhart writes, “an ornithological dream team.”
This illuminating book serves as homage to a brilliant naturalist and extraordinary birds. If you loved H Is for Hawk, put this next on your reading list.
A well-argued, entertaining disputation of the prevailing view that emotion and reason are at odds.
As Barrett (Psychology/Northeastern Univ.; co-editor: The Psychological Construction of Emotion, 2014, etc.) writes, the “internal battle between emotion and reason is one of the great narratives of Western civilization. It helps define [us] as human.” From this perspective, emotion is treated as “a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.” To the contrary, the author, who also has appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, contends that our emotions are not hard-wired in our brains and triggered by circumstances. Instead, they are flexible and vary from culture to culture. During the course of our lifetimes, our brains wire and rewire themselves in response to upbringing and individual experiences. This argument puts Barrett at odds with the prevailing review of well-regarded scientists, such as Antonio Damasio, who emphasize that not only are our emotions shaped subconsciously, but also many of our actions. The author makes a convincing case that such explanations are too simplistic. She emphasizes that our brains respond flexibly to the circumstances of our lives. The degree to which we are responsible for actions that occur in the heat of passion, or prejudices of which we are unaware, may be arguable; that we share responsibility as parents and citizens for the social norms of our culture—e.g. racial prejudice and gender stereotyping—is not. We are responsible for our individual actions, of course, but we also bear responsibility for working to eliminate racial prejudice, gender stereotyping, and the like from our society. As Barrett points out, this has important legal as well as moral implications and leads into the thorny questions surrounding free will.
A highly informative, readable, and wide-ranging discussion of “how psychology, neuroscience, and related disciplines are moving away from the search for emotion fingerprints and instead asking how emotions are constructed.”
In an intellectually provocative follow-up to Sapiens (2015), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) looks to the future.
Throughout history, humans prayed for deliverance from famine, disease, and war with spotty success. For centuries, prophets agreed that all of the suffering was “an integral part of God’s cosmic plan.” Today, obesity kills more humans than starvation, old age more than disease, and suicide more than murder. Having reduced three horsemen of the apocalypse to technical problems, what will humans do next? Harari’s answer: we will become gods—not perfect but like Greek or Hindu gods: immortal and possessing superpowers but with some foibles. Although an atheist, the author does not demean religion. “Up until modern times,” he writes, “most cultures believed that humans play a part in some cosmic plan…devised by the omnipotent gods, or by the eternal laws of nature, and humankind could not change it. The cosmic plan gave meaning to human life, but also restricted human power.” Even without this agency, this belief gave our lives meaning: disasters happened for a reason, and everything would work out for the best. Deeply satisfying, this remains a core belief of most humans, including nonchurchgoers. Since the Enlightenment, the explosion of knowledge has produced dazzling progress but limited the influence of God. Many thinkers—if not the general public—agree that there is no cosmic plan but also that humans are no longer humble victims of fate. This is humanism, which grants us immense power, the benefits of which are obvious but come at a painful price. Modern culture is the most creative in history, but, faced with “a universe devoid of meaning,” it’s “plagued with more existential angst than any previous culture.” As in Sapiens, smoothly tackles thorny issues and leads us through “our current predicament and our possible futures.”
A relentlessly fascinating book that is sure to become—and deserves to be—a bestseller.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons.
Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.”
This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.
A fresh take on evolution and how “we can study [it] as it occurs, right before our eyes.”
Good books on evolution appear regularly. In this excellent book, Losos (Biology/Harvard Univ.; Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles, 2009, etc.), the curator of herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, asks a big question that readers may not have considered: is evolution predictable? The author delivers an often startling, convincing, and entirely satisfying answer. In Hollywood science fiction, intelligent beings from distant planets look like us with a few tweaks. Science buffs sneer, but Losos maintains that this is reasonable. Provided the far-off planet’s environment resembles ours, life will evolve more or less in parallel. “There are limited ways to make a living in the natural world,” writes the author, “so natural selection drives the evolution of the same features time and again.” This is convergence, a process in which unrelated organisms develop similar traits as they evolve in similar environments. The iconic example: when a mammal and a reptile evolved to live in the ocean, the creatures (dolphin, ichthyosaur) looked alike and little different from a tuna. Even more startling, evolution itself has become an experimental science. A brilliant experimenter, Darwin never tested his greatest idea because he thought natural selection occurred at a glacial speed. In fact, when pressures are strong, species change visibly within generations. Losos devotes the second half of the book to juicy, hair-raising, if sometimes-tedious experiments in which scientists show evolution occurring before their eyes. Protected from grazing rabbits, plants run wild within years. Nearly 65,000 generations of bacteria, carefully observed over three decades, have undergone profound, permanent changes. Years of measuring lizard legs (the author’s specialty) or decades devoted to finch beaks or guppy color also turn up solid genetic transformation.
A cheerful, delightfully lucid primer on evolution and the predictive possibilities within the field.
A unique, alarming portrayal of the American military-industrial complex, the crisis of climate change, and the nature of truth and despair.
In 2013, Baumgart was granted a rare visit to China Lake, a 1.1-million acre bombing range in California’s Mojave Desert, by way of a tour of the petroglyphs in the Coso Range. Accompanied by his mother, an ailing New Age climate change denier lured by the spiritual significance of the landscape, the author sought to investigate the military’s work in atmospheric alteration, examining our global climate crisis and its deep cultural roots through the lens of weather modification and geoengineering. Baumgart delves into the history of cloud seeding and its role as a Cold War weapon. Despite a dubious scientific reputation, related conspiracy theories, and public calls for caution, research in controlling weather progresses today at China Lake as modern cloud seeding is now used in the U.S. and around the world. Baumgart’s dreamlike, nonlinear narrative is composed of dizzying juxtapositions, illuminating the parallels and paradoxes of modernity and antiquity, devastation and healing, science and the supernatural. Resisting simple answers and constantly challenging assumptions, the author explores collective and personal anxieties surrounding human-nature relationships and the planet’s current peril, interwoven with childhood nostalgia and reflections on family, loss, and time. Summoning the absurd in the ordinary and exposing our rejection of our earthly home, he analyzes technocratic fixes to cultural problems and the unintended consequences of humans playing god, attempting not only to control nature, but to render it a weapon. Can man ultimately harness the world? Will the stars disappear? How will humanity respond to looming extinction? Can the Western world adopt a new narrative? How might we find meaning and cope with despair? In this striking, poetic literary debut, Baumgart examines these questions and others that are profoundly resonant in our time.
Nearly indescribable and utterly engrossing, this book is an urgent and terrifying cultural reflection, a startling look in the mirror.
Are there limits to human knowledge? Philosophers and religious thinkers have long answered “yes” and then provided examples that turned out to be wrong. A renowned mathematician argues that “yes” might very well be correct.
Du Sautoy (Public Understanding of Science/Oxford Univ.; The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey through Everyday Life, 2011, etc.) sets himself a difficult task: “to know whether there are things that, by their very nature, we will never know.” He asks, “despite the marauding pace of scientific advances, are there things that will remain beyond the reach of even the greatest scientists, mysteries that will remain forever part of the great unknown?” Readers will thoroughly enjoy his successful effort, which avoids the pitfalls of predicting specifics by addressing general areas. Empty space cannot exist; it’s impossible to know the simultaneous location and speed of anything; particles sometimes behave like pure energy. This is true of everything but becomes obvious at the level of atoms and smaller. It’s called quantum mechanics, a murky subject that nobody understands fully. The most powerful computer can’t forecast a traffic jam or the weather beyond a few weeks because a small change at the beginning may produce enormous, unpredictable changes later. This is chaos theory, an implacable barrier. Deconstructing time and determining the size of the universe remain out of reach, but the mechanism of consciousness, once the poster boy of impossibility, now seems the inevitable product of increasingly advanced studies in neuroscience. The author concludes with his own field, which, unlike science, can prove statements absolutely. Infinity, once considered beyond comprehension, turns out to be full of interesting qualities, and parallel lines often meet, but mathematicians have shown that many statements and entire areas of mathematics are unprovable.