Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
What We Cannot Know: Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge
- Marcus du Sautoy
Science bristles with 'known unknowns', from dark matter to the origins of life. But are some of these conundrums unknowable? In this finely synthesized study, mathematician Marcus du Sautoy explores the edges of our understanding in maths, mind and beyond. Each spiralling investigation begins with an object: casino dice kick-start a foray into probability; a wristwatch propels us into grappling with time. A dazzling journey, vivified by conversations with the likes of neuroscientist Christof Koch on psychophysics and cosmologist Max Tegmark on the mathematical Universe.
The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population
Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin. Princeton University Press (2016)
“For more than two hundred years, people have loved to hate Thomas Robert Malthus,” declare historians Alison Bashford and Joyce Chaplin. In their penetrating reappraisal of the philosopher's Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, they argue that his theory of population growth outstripping agricultural production has been decontextualized. He was less a critic of the English poor than of a swelling European population in his era of colonization, and its impact on people in the New World.
The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity
- Daniel Callahan
In this trenchant treatise, bioethicist Daniel Callahan investigates why five global issues — water and food shortages, climate change, disease and obesity — remain intractable, despite the billions of dollars thrown at them. Callahan examines cross-cutting problems such as an ageing population, and analyses the role of policy and governance. To ramp up the “intensity level” needed for solutions, he envisions coordinated efforts by grass-roots activists, corporations and national and international agencies. Pragmatic and measured.
Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. Bloomsbury Information (2016) 9781472936370
The grit and glory of the Renaissance is mirrored in our own age, from looming risks such as pandemics to the transcendent genius needed to overcome them. So aver globalization expert Ian Goldin and political scientist Chris Kutarna in this bold mega-analysis of global education, health, prosperity and technology, then and now. Their parsing of revolutions — from the introduction of the Copernican principle to the digital explosion — is incisive and rich in context and granularity, but not every sweeping statement holds up.
In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine
- Aarathi Prasad
Indian medicine is a complex landscape where six traditional systems jostle with Western biomedicine. Science journalist Aarathi Prasad's focused and fascinating journey through the intricacies takes her to Mumbai's sprawling slum Dharavi, where sanghinis, or female counsellors, help the hordes of local women subjected to rape and domestic violence. She also visits a clinic that integrates Western labwork with ancient Ayurvedic practice; a project mixing paediatric eye surgery with neuroscience research; and much more.
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Kiser, B. Books in brief. Nature 533, 319 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/533319a