BOOKS AND ARTS

Frankenstein’s monster, inside our senses and an end to epidemics: Books in brief

Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week’s best science picks.

Book jacket 'Heaven on Earth'

Heavens on Earth

Michael Shermer Henry Holt (2018)

An astonishing 75% of US citizens — including some avowed atheists — believe in an afterlife. So potent is the idea of immortality, reminds Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer in this intriguing study, that it pervades human culture. After exploring the notion’s place in religious belief, Shermer examines its scientific manifestations, from transhumanism and longevity research to cryonics. He looks, too, at utopianism as the desire to create an earthly paradise. He concludes that balanced rationality — along with an honest, positive acceptance of mortality — constitutes the real “soul” of life.

Book jacket 'Frankenstein and the Birth of Science'

Frankenstein and the Birth of Science

Joel Levy Andre Deutsch (2018)

The bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s masterwork Frankenstein is upon us. And one of the first homages of the year is this episodic, entertaining analysis by science writer Joel Levy. He presents the novel as a portrayal of high-Romantic “gonzo science”, as well as science fiction. Levy contextualizes Shelley’s narrative with contemporary research into areas such as galvanic revivification, psychoactive substances and polar discovery (as Victor Frankenstein and his monster travel to the North Pole). A celebration of an enduring classic’s “extraordinarily rich confluence of sources”.

Book jacket 'Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks'

The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks

Donald R. Prothero Columbia University Press (2018)

Geologist Donald Prothero has crafted a rock-solid premise for this delightful book: a tour of 25 geological discoveries that changed our understanding of Earth and the cosmos. He begins explosively, with Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius in southern Italy in ad 79 — the first scientifically accurate description of such an event. He then reveals how deep time, the Moon’s origins and other ‘stories in stones’ were cracked by luminaries from Enlightenment geologist James Hutton to Marie Tharp, who mapped the Atlantic Ocean’s floor in the 1950s.

Book jacket 'Our Senses'

Our Senses

Rob DeSalle Yale University Press (2018)

Sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste: the senses are our portal to the world. But this erudite, zesty study by Rob DeSalle, curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, ranges far beyond these “big five” into arenas such as balance, pain, heat and cold. DeSalle examines sense in an array of fauna, including comb jellies, lampreys and bats. He digs deepest, however, into how perception is formed in the human brain, how phenomena such as synaesthesia arise, how people with brain damage experience the world, and how our sensory armoury feeds creativity.

Book jacket 'End of Epidemics'

The End of Epidemics

Jonathan D. Quick and Bronwyn Fryer St Martin’s Press (2018)

Physician Jonathan Quick’s long experience at the front lines of global public health gives his call to action on pandemics a searing urgency. With writer Bronwyn Fryer, Quick examines how fear and complacency impede responses to emergencies such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. He then sets out a seven-part solution centred on actions such as establishing resilient health systems and mobilizing on-the-ground activism. Pragmatic, insightful and research-rich, this is a key volume for the policymaker’s shelf.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-00110-9
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