Books in brief

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online

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

The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation

Randall Fuller Viking (2017) ISBN: 9780525428336

Buy this book: US UK Japan

In 1860, when the American Civil War was about to rip the union apart, a bomb of a different kind hit the country. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species shattered the world views of several prominent intellectuals, as Randall Fuller's vivid history shows. Botanist Asa Gray became a prominent Darwinian. Abolitionist Franklin Sanborn saw echoes of Darwin's theory in US sociopolitical divisions. And naturalist Henry David Thoreau's observations of forest succession, species and weather became deeply interfused with Darwinian science.

The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

Stephen O'Shea W. W. Norton (2017) ISBN: 9780393246858

Buy this book: US UK Japan

Other mountain systems may be as biodiverse and beautiful as the Alps, but few are culturally richer. Over their 800-kilometre arc across 7 European countries, these 1,599 peaks have both divided and nurtured human geographies, creating endlessly fascinating distinctions. Stephen O'Shea's sardonic, science-rich travelogue zips from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's dislike of the region (“irritating silhouettes and shapeless piles of granite”) to the culinary horrors of rösti and geologist Richard Fortey's thoughts on the Insubric Line, where the Adriatic tectonic plate meets Europe's.

The Inkblots

Damion Searls Crown (2017) ISBN: 9780804136549

Buy this book: US UK Japan

Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922) countered Sigmund Freud in arguing that seeing, not saying, was key to the unconscious — and crafted the ink-blot test to gauge mental health. In this biography, Damion Searls traces myriad influences on Rorschach, from Carl Jung on psychology in its cultural context to philosopher Robert Vischer's work on empathy. An intuitive humanist and empiricist, Rorschach analysed results with sensitivity, and never in isolation. The test's use by others, from its apex in the postwar United States to today, is often less nuanced (see Nature; 2017).

Eat Me: A Natural and Unnatural History of Cannibalism

Bill Schutt Profile/Wellcome Collection (2017) ISBN: 9781781253977

Buy this book: US UK Japan

The case of murderer and putative cannibal Ed Gein (who inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho) opens zoologist Bill Schutt's treatise on 'eating one's own'. This is, however, a serious scientific overview of the phenomenon in fauna such as the legless, amphibious caecilians, as well as in us. In laying out the human story, Schutt inevitably dwells on details many will find grisly, from cannibalism in the pre-Neanderthal Homo antecessor to savage cases during the Second World War siege of Leningrad, the consumption of human placentas and the use of human body parts in medicine.

Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages

David M. Pyle Bodleian Library (2017) ISBN: 9781851244591

Buy this book: US UK Japan

This volume by volcanologist David Pyle almost explodes on the eye, so dramatic are the images and archival illustrations of eruptions and lava flows reproduced in it. Pyle — who curated the linked exhibition at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, UK — is an eloquent guide to the geology and history. But the visuals are the main event, from the lurid painting An Eruption of Vesuvius (1774) by Joseph Wright of Derby to photographs of ash clouds in Iceland and Martinique. A journey into the volcanic sublime.

Additional data