Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time
The poor fit between relativity and the quantum impedes our understanding of the Universe. Now philosopher Roberto Unger and theoretical physicist Lee Smolin propose a new model resting on three assumptions: time is real; mathematics is a limited tool; and there is only one Universe at a time. Smolin's is the briefer, arguably more focused section of this hefty explication, setting out clear agendas for research into quantum foundations, explanations for the 'arrow of time' and other parts of this puzzle.
p53: The Gene that Cracked the Cancer Code
By Sue Armstrong
As science writer Sue Armstrong reveals in this succinct, accessible study, humanity's genetic bulwark against cancer, p53, has featured in more than 70,000 papers since its 1979 discovery. Armstrong traces how the tumour-suppressor gene has effectively enhanced our knowledge of cancer and inspired treatments, interweaving the science with stories of patients and pathologists. Most vivid are the quotidian triumphs and disappointments of 'lab lifers' such as Michel Kress, one of the gene's several independent discoverers, and Galina Selivanova, working on a drug that restores function in mutant p53.
Vaccine Nation: America's Changing Relationship with Immunization
By Elena Conis
In the 1960s afterglow of broad success in defeating polio and smallpox, the US public embraced vaccination. Yet by 2009, debate was raging over its risks, even as some 90% of toddlers were being vaccinated against a raft of diseases. Historian Elena Conis analyses the shifts in official and public thinking on immunization as initiatives by presidents from John F. Kennedy onwards drove waves of mass vaccination. As she reveals, each new vaccine has prompted a radical reevaluation of the disease it targeted.
Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene by Gene
By Emily Monosson
“We beat life back with our drugs, pesticides and pollutants, but life responds.” So writes environmental toxicologist Emily Monosson in this examination of rapid evolution driven by artificial poisons. Her tour takes in antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria, herbicide-resistant agricultural weeds, DDT-resistant bedbugs and the blue crabs of Piles Creek, New Jersey. Living in a soup of pollutants including mercury and hydrocarbons, these decapodal survivors display altered behaviours as well as resistance. Monosson ends with a thought-provoking look at epigenetics — evolution “beyond selection”.
Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships
Can murder or self-harm be seen as moral? Anthropologists Alan Fiske and Tage Rai argue that many who commit violent acts are motivated by feelings of moral rightness aimed at regulating social relationships. Despite the provocative title, the findings can seem commonsensical. From Mafia murders prompted by omertà (their code of honour) to god-appeasing sacrifice, moral justification for violent acts seems a near-constant in human behaviour.