Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
This superb scientific exposé by journalist Maryn McKenna skewers the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in chicken feed. The practice has left much US supermarket chicken laced with antibiotic-resistant bacteria; globally, such microbes cause 700,000 human deaths each year. McKenna tracks the method's rise from the 1940s, a harrowing story punctuated by disease outbreaks and regulatory laxity. More recently, she shows, a trend to ban antibiotic use and instead re-engineer the poultry-farm environment could, given the dominance of chicken, transform the global “meat economy”.
“I'm walking like Frankenstein on crack, but it's the best I've got.” Thus writes astronaut and physician Scott Parazynski on climbing Everest with severe back pain, brought on by exposure to zero gravity. A veteran of five space missions, seven spacewalks and a stint as space pioneer John Glenn's personal medic, Parazynski is as disarmingly down-to-earth as he is heroically stoic. You're with him every minute in this hair-raising memoir, as he wrangles with wayward tethers outside the space station Mir, “sutures” a solar array to the International Space Station or gazes at the glittering tapestry of stars from Earth orbit.
Organs for transplantation comprise only a fraction of the potential 'harvest' yielded by a human corpse. In this pacy, detailed chronicle, Naomi Pfeffer reveals how hundreds of products are traded in US and UK markets, from skin for dressing leg ulcers (plastic-packed “like American cheese”) to the ground bone mixed into fixative for prosthetic limbs. Focusing on corneas, pituitary glands and skin, Pfeffer unravels the tangled ethics of this mortuary-fuelled industry, which has evolved over a century of medical experimentation and advances in extracting and preserving “cadaver stuff”.
Beyond gold and glory, an insatiable lust for foreign foods drove the juggernaut of British imperialism. So shows Lizzie Collingham in this rich economic history, drawing on annals military, mercantile and domestic to reveal the complex routes along which the fruits of colonial fields and fisheries were shunted to Britain's dining rooms. The 500-year journey begins with the role of Newfoundland salt cod ('poor John') in Tudor exploration, and progresses through imperial tales of class and cruelty by way of Jamaican rum, African rice and alarming dishes such as iguana curry and roasted opossum.
A billion people live in the shadow cities we call slums. Alan Mayne's trenchant social history traces how perception of them shifted. Victorians saw them as labyrinths or vortices — “topsy-turvy” realms of otherness. Today, they are more likely to be viewed as resilient hubs of innovation. Yet developers' war on slums has seen no ceasefire. It's hard to refute Mayne's estimation: “We invent them to explain to ourselves the ugly traits, the logical incongruities and the social inequalities of modern capitalist cities.”