A charming romp through the history of science.

SCIENCE OF THE MAGICAL

FROM THE HOLY GRAIL TO LOVE POTIONS TO SUPERPOWERS

How myths and magical beliefs may provide the first glimmers of scientific discovery.

Economist science correspondent Kaplan (Medusa's Gaze and Vampire's Bite: The Science of Monsters, 2012) begins with a provocative comparison of the Bible to the popular X-Men comics series. “The parting of the Red Sea in Exodus,” he writes, might reflect frightening “natural events like earthquakes, floods, or storms that our ancestors witnessed but could not understand.” The author's intent in making the comparison is not to deride religious belief but to illustrate how, by presenting the impossible as real, they record “information about what people were experiencing at the time when these stories were created.” This is exemplified by the theme of the X-Men, the fight for the rights of mutants. The comic was first published in 1963, one year after the Cuban missile crisis, when fears of nuclear radiation were high and the Civil Rights Act was soon to be signed into law. The author suggests that the well-documented healing benefits from positive thinking and the placebo effect may account in part for the popularity of pilgrimages in search of a cure. Similarly, astrology may contain hidden gems of wisdom. Our destiny is unlikely to be shaped by the stars, but disturbances of our circadian rhythms by jet lag or working alternating day and night shifts do affect mood and alertness. Also, shifts in the migratory patterns of birds may indicate changing weather patterns and predict the onset of infectious diseases—e.g., new strains of the influenza virus, which they carry. More fascinating is Kaplan's explanation of why prophecies based on reading the entrails of sacrificial animals were not entirely fanciful. The shape and color of an animal's liver reveals information about the environment. With a host of fun examples, Kaplan shows how “science and magic are not as much at odds with each other as we tend to think.”

A charming romp through the history of science.

Pub Date: Oct. 27, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4767-7710-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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