Barbara Kiser reviews five of the week's best science picks.
Liza Mundy Hachette (2017) 9780316352536
After the United States' abrupt entry into the Second World War in 1941, its military recruited a shadow army of code breakers. More than 10,000 talented female mathematicians and linguists joined their ranks. As Liza Mundy reveals in this astonishing chronicle, this elite corps helped to shorten the war, building the field of cybersecurity. Mundy, who mined US National Security Agency archives and interviewed survivors for the book, joins authors such as Margot Lee Shetterly and Nathalia Holt in giving the women behind great twentieth-century scientific endeavours their due.
The Aliens Among Us
Leslie Anthony Yale University Press (2017) 9780300208900
Whether it's Florida's Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) or Asian carp in the Great Lakes, invasions of alien species in the United States are rising, just as many ecosystems reach critical vulnerability. Tracing the pattern of invasion from introduction to adaptation, biologist Leslie Anthony explicates the science amid interviews with researchers on the front line. He ably cuts through the complexities of controlling species such as Didymosphenia geminata (rock snot algae), and eloquently defines the existential dilemma at the heart of the issue: “They were alien, I was alien; they were nature, I was nature.”
Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution
Jonathan Silvertown University of Chicago Press (2017) 9780226245393
The Darwinian dining served up by evolutionary ecologist Jonathan Silvertown in this delectably erudite study is all about tracing the impact of natural selection on foods. We learn that mussels helped to fuel the hominin exodus from Africa; rye is a weed domesticated by accident; carnivory and tapeworms are intimately linked; and Penicillium camemberti mould evolved in soft cheeses. We even examine engastration — stuffing one animal into another before cooking — as a status-led manifestation of the need to share food. This intricate scientific banquet is a marvellous read: bon appétit.
Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet
Dallas Campbell Simon & Schuster (2017) 9781471164057
In this nifty melange of real and fictional attempts to leave Earth, the vintage images alone are worth the price of the ticket. But broadcaster Dallas Campbell's “deeply impractical guide” is all pretty space-tastic. It begins logically, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's launch into orbit on 12 April 1961, and ends with the commercial propulsion of human ashes into space. In between are snippets such as a theme-park visit with Al Worden, pilot of the Apollo 15 command module; a history of spacesuits; astronaut Peggy Whitson's tortilla cheeseburger; and other fuel for imaginative lift-off.
Rise of the Necrofauna
Britt Wray Greystone (2017) 9781771641647
De-extinction is so hot a topic it sizzles. Science writer Britt Wray braves the heat for a neat overview of the science and its ethical and environmental implications. After explaining techniques for manipulating ancient DNA (cloning, CRISPR and selective breeding), Wray interviews a number of 'resurrection researchers' such as geneticist George Church of the Woolly Mammoth Revival project. The sceptics, including biologist Paul Ehrlich, add balance to Wray's tour of this hellishly complex, decidedly nascent field.