A new science of emotions, the trouble with polio eradication, and history writ large: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'American Eden'

American Eden

Victoria Johnson Liveright (2018)

In the 1760s, colonial America was ravaged by yellow fever, typhus and tuberculosis. David Hosack, born into that world, became a titan of medical research in the fledgling nation. He published on tetanus and breast cancer, pioneered smallpox vaccination and, as Victoria Johnson’s fine science biography reveals, contributed vastly to medicinal botany. Hosack’s famed, now lost, Elgin Botanic Garden in New York City became a key training centre for scientists and surgeons, who peered “into the globe-spanning, dizzying complexity of the natural world” through plants. A rich and compelling read.

Book jacket 'The Neuroscience of Emotion'

The Neuroscience of Emotion

Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson Princeton University Press (2018)

Anger, fear, joy: what are emotions, and what are they for? The sparsity of clear or robust answers spurred neuroscientists Ralph Adolphs and David Anderson to frame an integrated science of emotion. The result is scholarly, lucid and pertinent to both neurobiology and psychology. Mining research from the molecular level to the cognitive, they examine emotions as biological and reflective of evolved adaptations in species as varied as rodents, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and Homo sapiens. They usefully conclude with open questions for future research.

Book jacket 'Polio'

Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication

Thomas Abraham Hurst (2018)

Despite the 99% reduction in polio cases since 1988 under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the disease lingers on in a handful of countries. Meanwhile, vaccine-derived polioviruses have triggered outbreaks elsewhere. Science journalist Thomas Abraham travelled from slum to boardroom to research the GPEI’s premise and practice, as well as the broader trajectory of the disease and the efforts to tackle it. The result is a trenchant, well-argued analysis, isolating problems such as the initiative’s strategic focus on single vaccinations in regions also riddled with malaria and diarrhoea.

Book jacket 'Origin Story'

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything

David Christian Little, Brown (2018)

Historian David Christian is, with Bill Gates, co-founder of the Big History Project, an online syllabus stretching from the beginnings of the cosmos to human hegemony. Here, Christian distils that 13.8-billion-year chronicle by simplifying the mapping. Each threshold, such as the Big Bang or the lunar landings, is beautifully captured. Heat energy becomes a “drunken traffic cop”; gravity the “virtuoso chain-saw sculptor” of the early Universe; humans uniquely “cultivate and domesticate” information, like farmers. Long-haul science with wit and oomph.

Book jacket 'Weather'

Weather: An Illustrated History

Andrew Revkin and Lisa Mechaley Sterling (2018)

This fascinating chronicle of humanity’s complex relationship with weather by environmental journalist Andrew Revkin and science educator Lisa Mechaley is told through 100 milestones, each paired with a stunning archival image. A potted history of windscreen wipers sits next to a 1903 schematic of Mary Anderson’s invention; an image of eleventh-century Chinese scientist Shen Kuo faces his prescient observation of climate change; and a dramatic illustration of a waterspout accompanies Benjamin Franklin’s bizarre account of chasing and whipping a whirlwind in 1755.

Nature 558, 187 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05376-7
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