Humanizing the digital revolution, the secret life of yeast and Lyme disease through a climate lens: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket

How to Fix the Future

Andrew Keen Atlantic (2018)

Silicon Valley insider Andrew Keen has long been calling out the “disturbingly centralized, unequal, and creepy” aspects of the digital revolution. In this acerbic, articulate global survey of human-centred solutions, he examines best practice in consumer choice, education, innovation, regulation and social responsibility. His journey takes in digital investor John Borthwick’s call for antitrust regulation and “human-centric design”; lessons from China, Estonia and Singapore in how, or how not, to digitize; and distinct signs of cognitive clarity in no-tech schooling. An invigorating mix of principle and vision.

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A Longing for Wide and Unknown Things

Maren Meinhardt Hurst (2018)

The heroic narrative is a poor fit for Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), argues Maren Meinhardt in her subtle biography. An editor at The Times Literary Supplement, Meinhardt paints the polymath as a creature of “contradictions and ambiguous achievements” firmly rooted in German Romanticism. Ever striving for the top, whether climbing Ecuador’s Chimborazo mountain or writing Cosmos (1845), he often found his reach exceeding his grasp; even his personal life seems oddly indeterminate. An intriguing companion read to Andrea Wulf’s Invention of Nature (Knopf, 2015; see Nature 525, 31; 2015).

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The Rise of Yeast

Nicholas P. Money Oxford University Press (2018)

Yeasts are firmly embedded in the substrate of human culture. The sugar fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae is, of course, central to the making of wine, beer, bread and biofuels; and other members of this unicellular eukaryotic clan are used as ‘lab rats’ in molecular genetics, or help produce drugs such as the antimalarial artemisinin. They’re all over (and inside) us, too. Botanist Nicholas Money’s effervescent tour is packed with delights, such as illustrations by Charles Tulasne, the “Audubon of fungi”, or the revelation that yeasts and humans share a common ancestor (and hundreds of genes).

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Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change

Mary Beth Pfeiffer Island (2018)

“This is an illness that has been minimized, underestimated, and politicized.” Thus says investigative reporter Mary Beth Pfeiffer on Lyme, the tick-borne disease now on the march in North America, Europe and Asia. As Pfeiffer’s hard-hitting study reminds us, non-specific symptoms and other complexities make tackling Lyme a formidable challenge (see also J. G. Logan Nature 552, 174; 2017). She nimbly interweaves numerous strands of research — into the influence of climate change on the Lyme invasion, the disease, the pathogen, the vectors and the harrowing impacts borne by some sufferers.

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The Missing Ingredient

Jenny Linford Particular (2018)

Time is the key ingredient in the culinary lab, argues Jenny Linford, cleverly reframing every step of the ‘food chain’ as poised on the clock’s tick. From this perspective, we see classic veal stock as a 24-hour marathon, perfectly roasted coffee as a 4-minute drama and exquisitely fresh, consummately cooked sole as a mad sprint from boat to plate. Linford hardly draws breath as she zips from the time it takes for grated wasabi to develop its piquant kick (5 minutes) to the moment sauerkraut reaches peak fermentation.

Nature 554, 299 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01809-5
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