An environmental journalist returns with a multifaceted examination of the science, the art, the technology and even the smell of rain throughout history.
Barnett, who has written previously about hydrology (Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, 2011, etc.), has an eclectic agenda for her new work. She takes us back to the Big Bang and then moves rapidly forward, explaining in crisp, evocative sentences why Earth is our solar system’s only habitable planet. She then discusses rainfall issues around the globe before commencing her focus on individual facets of the subject. Barnett writes about historical cycles of drought and flood and how they affected the world’s principal religions—from Noah to Indian rain dances. She segues into weather forecasting, with an emphasis on the meticulous records that Thomas Jefferson kept (she returns to him at various other times). She pauses to tell us about the developments of the raincoat and the umbrella and provides a couple chapters on rain in American history—with details in one chapter about the westward migration, including the difficulties in Nebraska and elsewhere on the Great Plains. A particularly engaging chapter deals with “rainmakers,” from charlatans to scientists. The author then tries to show the influence of rain on various arts, from Chopin to Dickens to Dickinson to Woody Allen. (This topic needs an entire book of its own.) Next comes the scent of rain, the perfume industry in India, and the problems of rainwater in urban areas, with a focus on Seattle and Los Angeles. Barnett also deals with the oddities of rain (frogs falling from the sky), and she ends with some sharp comments for climate change deniers—and with a visit to the rainiest place on earth, a town in India.
Highlights the severity of some of our environmental problems with knowledge, humor, urgency and hope.
One of the world's most renowned and forward-thinking oncologists recounts 35 years of cancer research and tells us why we should be optimistic about the future.
In the last 20 years, cancer survival rates have skyrocketed thanks to the innovative researchers and physicians pioneering effective therapies. Leading this “war on cancer” is DeVita (Medicine and Epidemiology and Public Health/Yale School of Medicine), whose career credentials include stints as director of the National Cancer Institute, president of the American Cancer Society, and director of the Yale Cancer Center. Even more impressive: he developed a cure for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the first true cure for any form of cancer and the first of many successes to come in the field of combination chemotherapy. In each chapter, the author deftly navigates the many nuances of cancer research and treatment using accessible language to describe exciting technological advances while also providing a gritty look at the uneasy relationship between government and science. On one hand, writes DeVita, programs like the NCI exist because of federal funding, and many of America’s cancer centers are among the best in the world. However, the author also delivers a no-holds-barred analysis of bureaucracy’s weakness: it remains challenging to get new treatments approved, even in an era in which many cancer drugs show incredible promise. DeVita reports on this and myriad other issues facing cancer doctors and the patients they care for, imbuing his superb science writing with an emotional back story—including his own cancer diagnosis—that enriches the joys and struggles he has faced in his long career. This book is also far more than a history: it’s a manifesto in which the author states plainly what needs to be done to eradicate the disease. In the meantime, he arms readers with behind-the-scenes details about where to seek treatment, insisting that we’ve arrived at “the beginning of the end” of the disease.
One of the most absorbing and empowering science histories to hit the shelves in recent years.
Dreger (Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics/Northwestern Univ.; One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, 2004, etc.) passionately investigates character assassinations in academia and how “[s]cience and social justice require each other to be healthy, and both are critically important to human freedom.”
Among others, the author examines the case of anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, whose blunt characterization of the Yanamomö tribe in Brazil led to accusations that he had fomented tribal violence. This was false, Dreger demonstrates, abetted by a disgraceful lack of fact-checking, personal animus and a belief in tribes as “noble savages.” Following her doctoral thesis on Victorian doctors’ attitudes toward hermaphrodites, Dreger’s writing caught the attention of the intersex movement, which she joined to support the rights of mixed-sex individuals to self-determine their sexual identity. Similarly, she supported transsexual rights but soon became a target for uncovering the dirty dealings of three transgendered females. The women were incensed by a researcher who proposed that the sex changes of some male-to-female transsexuals were motivated by eroticism. The trio exploited social media with outrageous fabrications of the researcher’s work and life. In other studies, Dreger found serious ethical issues with the research of a pediatrician who espouses the use of a potent steroid drug in certain pregnancies to forestall virilizing a female baby. The author also takes to task feminists who attacked an evolutionary psychologist for suggesting that rape, found in humans and other species, could be a way of perpetuating a male’s genes. Dreger’s investigations all turn on how human identity and behavior have been defined in history and why challenges to conventional wisdom are so inflammatory. That explains her homage to Galileo, whose mummified middle finger she saw in a museum in Florence. The finger points skyward to symbolize his opening the heavens to scientific investigation, she writes, while at the same time “giving the finger” in defiance of Vatican authority.
Let us be grateful that there are writers like Dreger who have the wits and the guts to fight for truth.
Fagan (Emeritus, Anthropology/Univ. of Calif., Santa Barbara; The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels, 2013, etc.) brings consummate skill to this frequently horrifying study of humanity's interaction with animals.
The author considers his book a purely historical inquiry, not simply an account of how our relationships to Earth's other inhabitants have changed over 2.5 million years, but how our interdependent relationships with eight mammals—dogs, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, cattle, camels and horses—have profoundly shaped human history. Fagan notes that the very word “animal” has roots in the Latin term anima, or “soul.” He then reveals how early humans defined their world in terms of the animals that were potent ritual partners and discusses how animals went from being respected as individuals to the modern commodification of select species as work animals and food. Eventually, traditional hunting, subsistence farming and husbandry yielded to systematic agriculture, large-scale herding, permanent settlements, cities and the Industrial Revolution. But the story is subtler and more involved than a partnership-to-exploitation narrative, involving not only Western concepts of animals as human possessions, but also a fundamental, distancing shift in humankind's relationship to the natural environment. Fagan ably explains the various mentalities and contradictions inherent in that story, and he studies a priceless archive of memory, embodied in legend and folklore, regarding associations between animals and people before wholesale domestication became subjugation. Still, our understanding of the factors that transformed wild creatures into domestic beasts owes much to conjecture and interpretation, something Fagan is keen to point out. His analysis, however, is sound, the product of an accomplished archaeological and anthropological background.
Though reminding us of the cruelties still visited upon animals and insisting that we respect them anew—not merely as pets or idealized creatures of the wild—Fagan offers no resolutions to our conflicting attitudes toward them, but his compelling, cohesive book calls for further enlightenment.
Europe’s Large Hadron Collider cost more than $10 billion, paid for by a consortium of nations. Its success owes much to charismatic physicist Ernest Lawrence (1901-1958), who invented the cyclotron, the Collider’s ancestor.
Los Angeles Times business columnist Hiltzik (The New Deal: A Modern History, 2011, etc.) attempts to combine Lawrence’s biography with the revolutionary consequences of his invention. He succeeds superbly with the biography. After 1900, scientists explored the atom by bombarding targets with feeble streams of particles from radioactive elements such as radium. Researchers yearned for means to produce more particles with higher energies. In the late 1920s, Lawrence conceived of an electromagnet and oscillating electric charge that accelerated protons around a device the size of a breadbox. After several years’ labor, mostly by brilliant, often unpaid graduate students, and huge (for the 1930s) expense, a functioning cyclotron began spewing out particles. By the early ’30s, Lawrence was famous; in 1939, he won the Nobel Prize in physics. During World War II, he was a central figure in the Manhattan project and the development of the atom bomb. Afterward, he became a proponent of the hydrogen bomb and a polarizing Cold War figure, although his advocacy of bigger cyclotrons remained undiminished. Except for an epilogue, Hiltzik ends with Lawrence’s death in California. Decades later, “Big Science”—i.e. wildly expensive, often government financed—continues to flourish. The author disapproves of its proliferation for the usual unconvincing reason—that it diverts money from more worthy endeavors, such as small science, education, and social programs. In fact, when massive projects such as America’s superconducting supercollider are cancelled, the money often never goes to worthy programs; it usually disappears.
A fascinating biography of a physicist who transformed how science is done.
Randall (Theoretical Particle Physics and Cosmology/Harvard Univ.; Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, 2011, etc.) explores the causes of the fifth major extinction event, which occurred 66 million years ago and wiped out terrestrial dinosaurs and three-quarters of all other species living on Earth.
Dinosaurs dominated life on Earth for 135 million years. Geologists and paleontologists now agree that their relatively sudden extinction is attributable to the impact of a comet or asteroid hitting the Earth and precipitating major climate change. The author seeks to test her hypothesis that "a disk of dark matter in the plane of the Milky Way was responsible for triggering the meteoroid's fatal trajectory." For Randall, the role of dark matter in the evolution of the universe is the next scientific frontier. Dark matter constitutes 85 percent of the matter in the universe. It is not composed of atoms or electrons (the stuff of ordinary matter), and it does not interact with light or other radiation. We only know of its existence because of its measurable gravitational effects. Randall believes that it may have played a significant role in the existence of life on Earth not only by triggering a major climate-changing meteoroid collision, but by precipitating smaller impacts that deposited the heavy elements necessary for life (e.g., carbon) and possibly even amino acids. Now that the existence of the Higgs boson has been confirmed, the author is setting her sights on this exciting scientific area, which is built on the advances in scientific understanding of cosmic events over the past 50 years. Specifically, this involves establishing the possibility that there was a periodicity in the five extinction events reflective of still-unknown cosmic events possibly involving dark matter. Writing in a deceptively chatty narrative style, Randall provides a fascinating window into the excitement of discovery and the rigor required to test and elaborate new hypotheses.
A top-notch science book from a leading researcher.
Redniss (Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, 2010) delivers an arrestingly unconventional exploration of weather.
This is a terrific celebration of weather as an elemental force in not only our daily lives, but in our global stories, myths, history, and cultural identities. It is part powerful graphic novel (with impeccable color sense) and part meteorological text. The author divides the book into chapters such as Cold, Rain, Sky, Heat, Dominion, Profit, and Forecasting, and within each chapter is an array of anecdotes and factoids, vest-pocket biographies, and elegant place descriptions. After an introduction to the Arctic explorer Vilhjálmur Stefánsson, Redniss discusses the demographics of the far-north Svalbard archipelago (“Today, Svalbard has a population of approximately 2000 people and 3000 polar bears”). Then she moves on to a lightshow in South America’s Atacama Desert: “in the shifting light, the Atacama’s sands turn gold, orange, and violet. In the shadows, the landscape is blue, green, violet. Treeless, plantless expanses of stark grandeur roll out like a Martian landscape.” Redniss details what we know about the dynamics of lightning and why lightning often gives us the shivers. “Lightning can charge out of a bright blue sky,” she writes, “traveling horizontally 10 or more miles from a nearby storm. Lightning can, and does, strike twice.” The author also looks at the meteorological effects of the death of Kim Jong II as reported by North Korea’s official news outlets (“winds were stronger, waves higher, and temperatures the coldest of the season”), the money to be made off ice at Walden Pond, and Benjamin Franklin, who “was a proponent of air baths, the practice of sitting naked by an open window.” This book is not simply a collection of oddments and odd fellows, but rather a genuine demonstration of weather as a phenomena and how it is fantastical on both the symbolic and systematized levels.
A highly atmospheric, entertainingly earnest, and intimate engrossment with the world’s most popular topic of conversation.
A leading economist offers a brilliant analysis of the worldwide need to balance economic development and environmental sustainability.
Sustainable development is “the greatest, most complicated challenge humanity has ever faced,” writes Sachs (Sustainable Development, Health Policy and Management/Columbia Univ.; To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace, 2013, etc.). In an important, comprehensive and remarkably accessible book—a standout in a sea of jargon-laden titles that fail to explain and vivify this enormously complex topic—the author writes lucidly about a staggering array of intertwined challenges, including poverty, overpopulation, species extinction, overextraction from oceans, urbanization, social mobility and climate change. Sachs stresses that sustainable development is “inherently an exercise in problem solving,” and he calls for a holistic approach and new ideas to produce “prosperous, inclusive, sustainable, and well-governed societies.” He explains the history of world economic development, the factors that help make some nations more impoverished than others (such as the landlocked nature of much of Africa), the science of climate change, how technical advances have fostered the depletion of ocean fisheries, the “unfinished business” of social mobility, and the pressing need for sustainable technologies and higher farm yields (especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia). In each instance, the author offers telling details and anecdotes accompanied by useful charts, maps and photographs that drive home his points. Two photos of Shenzhen, China, taken three decades apart, convey the astonishing growth of that major southern city. Examining each aspect of his topic in detail within the context of the Sustainable Development Goals formulated at the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, Sachs argues that solutions are feasible and affordable, despite strong opposition by vested interests and the inaction of governments.
Required reading for policymakers and students, and general readers will finish the book realizing they actually understand what sustainable development is all about.
Award-winning ecologist Safina (Nature and Humanity/Stony Brook Univ.; The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, 2011 etc.) disputes the dogma among scientists that forbids speculations about the “the inner lives of animals.”
As the author notes, “a young scientist is taught that the animal mind—if there is such—is unknowable.” They are taught to always refer to animals as “it” rather than “who.” Attributing emotions to animals is to commit the sin of anthropomorphism. Safina refutes this idea by examining the social behavior of primates, elephants, wolves, whales, and many others. “Not assuming that other animals have thoughts and feelings was a good start for a new science,” he writes. “Insisting that they did not was bad science.” To dissociate man from other animals is to deny the evidence. We recognize when animals are hungry, so why not admit “when animals seem joyous in joyful contexts, joy is the simplest interpretation of the evidence.” The author cites experiments that demonstrate how electrical stimulation of the brains of animals and humans trigger similar emotional responses, and he based his examples on his personal observations of animals in the wild and discussions with experts with firsthand knowledge of them. For example, the matriarch in an elephant or wolf family depends on other adults for support, and they, in turn, depend upon her. Safina illustrates this with poignant descriptions of how the social lives of both adult and young animals are shaped by the interplay of individual adult personalities within the family. The author's chronicles of his observations of wild animals are captivating, but they also serve to make a larger point: why are people unwilling to admit that nonhuman animals also think and feel as we do? Safina suggests that perhaps it is “because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them.”
A profound, scientifically based appeal for recognition of the kinship of all living things.
An unusually rewarding meditation on how a wild mushroom can help us see the world’s ruined condition after the advent of modern capitalism.
The matsutake—a beloved species of mushroom that fetches high prices in Japan—is a survivor that grows inches below ground in deeply human-disturbed forests. Difficult to find and impossible to cultivate, it is said to have been the first living thing to emerge from the devastated landscape of Hiroshima. Bursting with ideas and observations, Tsing’s (Anthropology/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz; Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, 2004, etc.) highly original ethnographic study follows this spicy-smelling mushroom’s global commodity chain, from the forests of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and elsewhere to Tokyo auction markets. She recounts her interviews with mushroom pickers, scientists, and entrepreneurs in the United States, Asia, and elsewhere to explore the matsutake’s commerce and ecology. “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination,” she writes. “Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us—but it might open our imaginations.” In prose that is both scholarly and deeply personal, Tsing shows how the matsutake, emblematic of survival amid changing circumstances, thrives in transformative collaboration with trees and other species and points the way toward coexisting with environmental disturbance (“the uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift—and a guide—when the controlled world we thought we had fails”). The author covers a staggering array of topics, from freedom, foraging, and forestry to DNA research and the music of John Cage. Consistently fascinating, her story of the picking and selling of this wild mushroom becomes a wonderful window on contemporary life.
Not exactly a history of science but of our idea of science: a shrewd, thoughtful analysis of how our view of finding truth held steady throughout history and then, over a century, changed and produced the dazzling progress we often take for granted.
Until the 16th century, most people believed that everything worth knowing was already known and that all questions could be answered with deep thought. Aristotle, the ultimate authority in the West, taught that one found truth through logical deductions from incontestable premises. Thus, since the heavens are unchanging and the only permanently unchanging movement is circular, all heavenly movements are circular. According to that worldview, observations are irrelevant. Columbus shattered this concept in 1492; no deduction could have predicted a new continent. Within decades, men—e.g., Copernicus in astronomy and Vesalius in anatomy—were examining phenomena with a new curiosity, claiming their findings were true even if they contradicted the official views of those in power. Many boasted of their achievements. Wootton (History/Univ. of York; Galileo: Watcher of the Skies, 2010, etc.) describes this as “a quite new type of intellectual culture: innovative, combative, competitive, but at the same time obsessed with accuracy.” The author maintains that modern science took form between 1572, when Tycho Brahe saw a nova, or new star, and 1704, when Isaac Newton published Opticks, which demonstrated that white light consists of all colors of the rainbow and that color inheres in light rather than in objects. Except for denouncing modern philosophers who teach that truth is culturally determined, so all explanations of reality are equally valid, Wootton’s account, as massive and sweeping as it is, stops with Newton.
A superbly lucid examination of a dramatic revolution in human thought that deserves a place on the shelf with Thomas Kuhn and David Deutsch.
Engrossing biography of “a visionary, a thinker far ahead of his time,” who “revolutionized the way we see the natural world.”
For most of his life, explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a household name. Never just a simple collector or adventurer, he poured out his ideas in lectures, conversations, and books that made him the public face of science during his era. In this fine account of an unbelievably energetic life, British commentator and historian Wulf (Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, 2012, etc.) emphasizes that his insights marked the end of the universal view (at least among scientists) of animals as soulless automatons and the belief that humans were lords of the Earth. He ushered in the modern era of natural science, including—although he usually gets little credit—environmentalism. Humboldt, writes the author “saw the earth as a great living organism where everything was connected, conceiving a bold new vision of nature that still affects how we understand the world.” The son of a wealthy Prussian aristocrat, he used his money to finance his iconic, grueling 1799-1804 expedition through the jungles and mountains of Latin America, ending with a long visit to President Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong correspondent. He eventually returned to Europe, wrote of his experiences in 34 bestselling volumes, and continued to travel, lecture, write, and excite artists, poets, scholars, and scientists for the remainder of a very long life. Wulf pauses regularly for chapters on other great men who acknowledged Humboldt’s immense influence, including Goethe, Simón Bolívar, Charles Darwin, Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
Humboldt was the Einstein of the 19th century but far more widely read, and Wulf successfully combines a biography with an intoxicating history of his times.