A University Education
David Willetts Oxford University Press: 2017.
Worldwide, universities numbered just 500 after the Second World War; the tally is now 10,000. The most venerable handful are, like California redwoods, “deep-rooted, long-lived, and with the power to shape an entire eco-system around them”. So declares David Willetts in this magisterial study of the institution. In it, Willetts, UK minister for universities and science from 2010 to 2014, explores the landscapes of research, scholarship and innovation; parses the intricacies of policy; dives into the vexed question of fees; and gives related topics, from globalization to “edtech”, their due.
Ten Great Ideas about Chance
Persi Diaconis and Brian Skyrms Princeton University Press: 2017.
What are the odds that the Sun will ‘rise’ again tomorrow? Just because the phenomenon happens every day, can we be sure it will again? And, most importantly, can we quantify our confidence in that prediction? In ten engaging, profound and occasionally dense chapters, mathematician Persi Diaconis and logician Brian Skyrms review pivotal points in the history of probability and statistics, unified by a central thread: the practical and philosophical pitfalls that lie in the very definition of chance. A volume that should be on every scientist’s reading list.
Another Science Is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science
Isabelle Stengers (translated by Stephen Muecke) Polity: 2017.
Sloppy, conformist, opportunistic and in thrall to a boom-and-bust economy: a worrying proportion of research, argues philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, is little better than a rush job. Stengers calls for scientists to remember that science is tightly twined with social concerns, and cannot vanquish global issues at speed, or alone. Further, she argues that researchers need to participate in “public intelligence”: honest, coherent communication with a scientifically clued-up populace. Although convoluted at times, Stengers’s slow‑science manifesto is timely, trenchant and thoughtful.
The Spaces Between Us
Michael Graziano Oxford University Press: 2018.
We walk through life in a bubble, asserts neuroscientist Michael Graziano. This personal buffer zone is “constantly switched on like a force field” and monitored by networks of ‘peripersonal’ neurons. Graziano’s detailed study splices early work on the phenomenon (such as the ‘escape zone’ of fleeing prey) into accounts of research, including his own, that is now sketching in relevant brain machinery. Finally, he explores psychosocial aspects and, in a devastating coda, reveals how dyspraxia compromises the ability to decode peripersonal space, with potentially explosive social consequences.
Why You Eat What You Eat
Rachel Herz W. W. Norton: 2017.
In this factual feast, neuroscientist Rachel Herz probes humanity’s fiendishly complex relationship with food from the inside out. We learn that a fetus detects aromatic compounds from food its mother eats, paving the way for preference; that we eat less of snacks served in red dishes; and that olive oil’s aroma may help to control weight. Herz also reveals how, on US election night 2016, a surge in deliveries of ‘comfort’ foods such as pizza hit New York and other stricken pro-Hillary Clinton cities. An intimate look at food on the brain.
Nature 552, 173 (2017)