Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

  • Dan Fagin
Bantam 560 pp. $28 (2013)

This hard-hitting account of cancer epidemiology in the New Jersey town of Toms River is a triumph. Hinging on a prolonged bout of toxic dumping by several companies up until the 1980s, journalist Dan Fagin's chronicle mixes reportage with science and industrial history. Thousands of drums of carcinogenic waste were buried in unlined pits, contaminating ground water; waste water was piped to coastal waters. In 2001, a landmark ruling linked some local cancers to local air and water pollution — a development with resonance, Fagin argues, for China's new industrial boom towns.

One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea

  • Dana Becker
Oxford University Press 256 pp. $35 (2013)

Is stress a 'lifestyle problem', or the inevitable result of larger social and political inequities, imbalances and shifts? Sociologist Dana Becker argues that in the United States, the diffuse concept of stress now covers all kinds of tensions — effectively masking their triggers, from dual-career marriages to the frenetic, technology-driven pace of daily life. As a result, real social change in areas such as health care stalls. Becker's analysis tracks the evolution of 'stressism' from its origins as the 'price of progress', through medicalization, gender politics and conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Are We Being Watched? The Search for Life in the Cosmos

  • Paul Murdin
Thames and Hudson 224 pp. £16.95 (2013)

Discoveries such as exoplanetary systems, water ice on Mars and extremophile bacteria on Earth, have energized the scientific quest for extraterrestrial life. Here, distinguished astronomer Paul Murdin, who discovered the first black hole in the Milky Way, uses findings from planetary and climate science, astronomy, the evolution of life on Earth and the missions of the Voyager and Galileo spacecraft as a springboard for astrobiological speculation. But this is a measured investigation: Murdin, ever clear-eyed, is well prepared to accept that we are unique.

Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom

Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez. Basic Books 272 pp. $26.99 (2013)

How does court evidence add up? Mathematicians Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez show that it often doesn't: calculations, statistics and probability can be misused, with dire consequences. The authors forensically unpick ten cases in which justice was undone in this way, from recent trials to that of Alfred Dreyfus in nineteenth-century France. Dreyfus suffered a hellish imprisonment for treason after a handwriting expert exaggerated probability — a miscarriage of justice later exposed mathematically by Henri Poincaré.

Frankenstein's Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech's Brave New Beasts

  • Emily Anthes
Oneworld Publications 256 pp. £8.99 (2013)

Tusked mice, transgenic goats lactating antithrombin, dogs with prosthetic testicles: science writer Emily Anthes reports from the wilder shores of animal biotechnology. A team at Fudan University in Shangai, China, for instance, has created 500 strains of modified lab mouse — and hopes to engineer 100,000. A Florida medical team has made a prosthetic tail for an injured dolphin. There is plenty more, but Anthes devotes the final word to bioethics, arguing that the advances are a chance to commit anew to animal well-being.