Not a polemic but an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.

HEAVENS ON EARTH

THE SCIENTIFIC SEARCH FOR THE AFTERLIFE, IMMORTALITY, AND UTOPIA

An exploration of “one of the most profound questions of the human condition, one that has driven theologians, philosophers, scientists, and all thinking people to try to understand the meaning and purpose of our life as mortal beings and discover how we can transcend our mortality.”

Despite never having experienced them, everyone holds strong opinions about death and the afterlife, writes Skeptic magazine publisher and Scientific American columnist Shermer (Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye, 2016, etc.) in this intriguing analysis of an area no one takes for granted. Young children don’t understand death, and adult circumlocution usually adds to their confusion (“He’s gone to a better place…”). By the teenage years, writes the author, “we understand that death is inevitable, universal, and irreversible. At the same time, most people also tend to believe that some part of life may continue into the next life, a tendency reinforced by most religions.” More than 100 billion people have died over the past 80,000 years; none have returned to life, and near-death experiences don’t qualify. In one of many no-brainers that fill the book, Shermer points out that anyone near death is, by definition, not dead. Another crowd pleaser, reincarnation, becomes a stretch if 10s of billions of wandering souls try to cram themselves into the 7.5 billion bodies currently alive. Since deeply held beliefs are often immune to evidence, the author’s blend of common sense, neuroscience, experimental findings, and history will attract few readers expecting a strong argument for the existence of an afterlife. This is a pity because Shermer proceeds to less controversial subjects. Vast life extension violates no natural law, so it may eventually happen. Legitimate scientists, as well as the usual eccentrics, are working on it. From hippie communes to the Soviet Union, attempts to create a perfect society invariably flop, and readers will find Shermer’s reasons why entirely reasonable. Finally, the author delivers a moving essay on the meaning of life.

Not a polemic but an ingenious popular-science account of how we deal with mortality.

Pub Date: Jan. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-62779-857-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2017

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 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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