Books in brief

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

Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War

Oxford University Press (2015) 9780190219475 | ISBN: 978-0-1902-1947-5

The life of Max Planck, 'father of quantum theory', smacks of enigma: his personal papers were mostly destroyed in the Second World War. Physicist Brandon Brown has mined what survived for this illuminating biography. The main thread is the endgame of the Second World War, when the elderly Planck endured tribulations such as his son Erwin's trial and execution for treason against the Reich. Through this Brown interweaves a gripping backstory, ranging from Planck's landmark theoretical description of black-body radiation to his loyal advocacy for fellow physicist Lise Meitner.

Discovering Tuberculosis: A Global History, 1900 to the Present

Yale University Press (2015) 9780300190298 | ISBN: 978-0-3001-9029-8

Polio incidence is down by 99% since 1988, but tuberculosis (TB) remains a scourge; it kills 2 million people a year, most with HIV/AIDS. In his chronicle of TB's trajectory from the start of the twentieth century, historian Christian McMillen probes our failure to control this “resilient, powerful, protean bacterial infection” and its drug-resistant strains. Tracing the swathe TB has cut through Africa, India and Native American areas, McMillen identifies the catalogue of errors keeping it in circulation — such as the closure of the UK Medical Research Council's TB units in 1986, just as Africa's struggle with HIV began.

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Oxford University Press (2015) 9780199299799 | ISBN: 978-0-1992-9979-9

This monumental history of twentieth-century military medical ethics is a meticulous record of ambiguity. Historian Ulf Schmidt shows how Germany's use of chemical weapons such as mustard gas in the First World War spurred Britain, Canada and the United States to begin secret toxic-agent trials that purported, in some cases, to be benign medical testing. At the UK Porton Down research centre alone, Schmidt reveals, 21,752 soldiers took part in tests between 1939 and 1989 — an experience that was frequently unpleasant, occasionally harmful and in a few cases fatal.

A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control

Basic (2015) 9780465058624 | ISBN: 978-0-4650-5862-4

Hordes of technologies emerge in lockstep with warnings of their risks. Ethicist Wendell Wallach sorts the hysteria from the hazards in this magisterial study. He looks in turn at disruption, complex systems, problematic trade-offs, the “transhumanism” movement — and new forms of governance to guide us through the innovatory onrush. It is conscious engagement, Wallach argues, that will allow us to resist the truly dangerous developments that threaten to “woo us to sleepwalk into the technological wonderland”.

Let's Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties

Twelve (2015) 9781455554959 | ISBN: 978-1-4555-5495-9

Struggling with brain fog? This “sub-primer” on the neuroscience of intelligence and memory by New Yorker staff writer and master humorist Patricia Marx delivers salutary cognitive jolts amid the general hilarity. Through a “higgledy-piggledy assortment of highfalutin science, lowfalutin sciences, tests” and more, Marx explores memory slippage, mindfulness, the Cherokee language and brain scans. If you regularly arrive in rooms with no memory of what you were looking for, this one is for you.

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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 523, 157 (2015).

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