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Books in brief

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

Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America's Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment

Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer. Hayes W. W. Norton (2015)


Scattered among the 319 million US citizens are 93 million cows, supplying milk, beef and raw materials for substances from paint to toothpaste. But at a price: ruined soils, lagoons of excrement and significant greenhouse-gas emissions. So argue environmentalist Denis Hayes and environmental lawyer Gail Boyer Hayes in this richly researched overview. Marshalling numerous case studies, they show how humanity could shift from industrial farming to scaled-down, scientifically backed, sustainable animal husbandry.

Ghost Cities of China: The Story of Cities without People in the World's Most Populated Country

Zed (2015) 9781783602193 | ISBN: 978-1-7836-0219-3

In 1949, China boasted 69 cities; now there are 657. Staggering in scale and set to churn on for 20 years, this experiment in urbanization is leaving a forlorn legacy: ghost towns that have yet to see an inhabitant. In this succinct study of a country bulldozed to make way for generic conurbations, China Chronicle editor Wade Shepard dispenses the facts with chilling clarity. As he examines mountains literally moved, relocation on a gargantuan scale and the duplication of Hallstatt, Austria, in Guangdong province, a stunned awe sets in.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Simon and Schuster (2015) 9781476769899 | ISBN: 978-1-4767-6989-9

Political scientist Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000) exposed the increasing fragmentation of US communities. Now Putnam takes on the erosion of social mobility — once the keystone of the American dream. Meshing quantitative data and interviews with young people from the Deep South to the Rust Belt, he explores the class gap and finds that the vicious cycles of economic poverty often lead to political disengagement and lack of access to knowledge. His solutions, such as child tax benefits, inspire — but could founder without 1960s-style reformist zeal.

Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

Thames & Hudson (2015) 9780500252123 | ISBN: 978-0-5002-5212-3

In this ambitious chronicle of mental illness over two millennia, historian of psychiatry Andrew Scull ranges over the jumbled landscape of “Unreason” with crisp authority. His central argument is that the social and cultural contexts of extreme emotional states “dwarf any single set of meanings and practices”. Insights jostle with horrors as Scull documents attempts to explain, contain and treat madness, from brutal asylums and lobotomies to the nuanced realization that mental illness has dual roots in society and biology.

Past Futures: Science Fiction, Space Travel, and Postwar Art of the Americas

Edited by:
Bowdoin/The MIT Press (2015) 9780262029025 | ISBN: 978-0-2620-2902-5

The science-fiction boom, cold war and space race of the mid-twentieth century set off a scientific and cultural explosion. Artists across the Americas discovered an alien splendour in the atomic age. This gripping volume showcases curator Sarah Montross's exhibition at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine: from the cataclysmic (Rufino Tamayo's 1954 Cosmic Terror) to the rhythmic (Emilio Renart's 1965 Drawing No. 13), it is a revelation.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 520, 155 (2015).

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