Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
For millennia, reproduction was a black box to philosophers and physicians, who puzzled in vain over the dissected corpses of pregnant deer or the function of semen. Edward Dolnick's absorbing detective story spans outlandish ancient theories on baby-making and the nineteenth-century dawn of embryology, led by pioneers such as Oscar Hertwig. Along the way are Leonardo da Vinci finding that blood, not 'wind', engorges the penis; Regnier de Graaf literally unravelling the functions of dormouse testicles; and Lazzaro Spallanzani fitting frogs with silk underwear to test the relation of sperm to egg.
A red-hot question in contemporary politics is how outsiders from Alexis Tsipras to Marine Le Pen ended up strutting the world stage. Political analyst Steve Richards asks a tough question in return: why did mainstream parties allow these “intimidatingly strong and yet transparently weak” candidates to gain a toehold? This is a smart, detailed insider's study of how, after the 2008 financial meltdown, left and right lost vision, adaptability and public trust. In the resulting vacuum, populists' big promises gained allure — until the realities of high office revealed the “powerlessness of power”.
Journalist Naomi Klein is on electrifying form in this study of “shock politics” — how leaders capitalize on public disorientation after crises such as terrorist attacks, a variation on her findings in The Shock Doctrine (Random House, 2007). During a presidency more like a corporate merger between 'super-brand' and government, Donald Trump, Klein argues, governs through serial shocks — U-turns and edicts on everything from climate to immigration. Klein's strategy for disaster preparedness is to focus on positives, such as calling for 100% renewables. A bold, compelling analysis.
For every human, there are 1.4 billion insects. David MacNeal invites us to revel in that fact by roaming over this gargantuan family and the scientific subculture wrapped up in it. MacNeal is a witty, informed guide to a world of winged and scuttling wonders, where fleas can hit g forces many times those felt by a lunar rocket on re-entry, and tiger beetles make smoothies of their prey. We meet researchers using mosquitoes' stinging probosces as model hypodermic needles, and vicariously savour chemically complex wild honey from hives on uninhabited Greek islands. Entomology at its most enchanting.
A graphic novel about the bumptious philosophers of the seventeenth century? What's not to like? Philosopher Steven Nadler and illustrator Ben Nadler have crafted an absolute gem of a science history, capturing with gravitas and zing the abstruse musings of René Descartes on mind–body dualism, John Locke on empiricist epistemology, and more. Inevitably, the Church's malign impact looms, notably over Galileo Galilei, Baruch Spinoza and heliocentrist Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600.