Far-flung futurism, the secrets of the raven and what’s wrong with metrics: Books in brief

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

Book jacket - Tyranny of Metrics

The Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Z. Muller Princeton University Press (2018)

Economic historian Jerry Muller delivers a riposte to bean counters everywhere with this trenchant study of our fixation with performance metrics — a cultural ubiquity saturating education, medicine, finance and governance. As he argues, this reductive approach to monitoring efficiency almost inevitably backfires. It can lower morale by riding roughshod over professionals’ experience; invite manipulation, from “gaming the stats” to “teaching to the test”; discourage innovation, promote short-termism; and reward dumb luck. Metrics, he asserts, can usefully bolster judgement, but not supplant it.

Book jacket - Food Explorer

The Food Explorer

Daniel Stone Dutton (2018)

In the annals of intrepid botanists combing the globe for novel species, David Fairchild is a name to conjure with. At the turn of the twentieth century, the plant scientist introduced 200,000 ‘exotic’ species to the United States, then something of a culinary blank slate. Kale, avocados, mangoes, pomegranates and even quinoa began to work their way into US consciousness and, eventually, markets. Daniel Stone’s rip-roaring tale takes us from Fairchild’s youthful meeting with naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in Kansas to collecting trips across more than 50 countries, from Trinidad to China.

Book jacket - Future of Humanity

The Future of Humanity

Michio Kaku Doubleday (2018)

This latest foray into futurism by Michio Kaku sees the physicist unbowed by woes political and planetary. As a master of the long view, Kaku plots humanity’s path to becoming a “multiplanet species”. He marshals fresh advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and bioengineering for his vision, segueing from lunar stations and Martian colonies to interstellar travel and human genetic engineering. There’s plenty of hypothetical innovation, too: ramjet fusion machines, antimatter engines and “laser porting” of human connectomes to enable bodiless exploration of the cosmos.

Book jacket - Shadow Above

A Shadow Above: The Fall and Rise of the Raven

Joe Shute Bloomsbury (2018)

Size-wise, the king of corvids is the raven. But for journalist Joe Shute, the bird is also an emblem of our age, caught between the ebb of wilderness and the hope of regeneration. In Britain, after a long, catastrophic decline, numbers have bounced back by 45% over the past two decades. Celebrating that fact, Shute gets inside the skin of the ‘feathered ape’ with the “rhino-horn beak” and aerial virtuosity. That journey becomes a rich and beguiling tangle of cultural and natural history, birding diary and account of corvid fandom — Charles Dickens being one notable devotee.

Book jacket - Making the Monster

Making the Monster

Kathryn Harkup Bloomsbury Sigma (2018)

Chemist Kathryn Harkup’s scientific contextualization of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at 200 is a worthy addition to a crowded shelf. She explicates how trailblazing discoveries in galvanism, chemistry and anatomy helped to form the bones of the book, while its heart beat to the rhythm of Shelley’s radical intellectual lineage and milieu. Harkup’s handling of Shelley’s own story and the literary alchemy wrought by this brilliant teenager compels, not least on how the science fiction has seeped into science fact.

Nature 554, 167 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01576-3
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