How the world goes to work, revelations about microbes and the many faces of motherhood: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Work'

Work: The Last 1,000 Years

Andrea Komlosy, trans. Jacob K. Watson & Loren Balhorn Verso (2018)

Employment outside the home became the globally dominant form of work only after 1900. Yet in policy and discourse, it has eclipsed older, more informal modes of production. Social historian Andrea Komlosy probes the joins between them in this sweeping chronicle, from 1250 — the dawn of globalization and urbanization — to today, when international corporations threaten labour standards. This is a book teeming with insights, from the contempt for manual labour in ancient Greece to the historical tendency for all kinds of subsistence tasks to be “housewife-ized” into unpaid domestic labour.

Book jacket 'Ascent of John lyndall'

The Ascent of John Tyndall

Roland Jackson Oxford University Press (2018)

A leading light in climate science, germ theory and magnetism, Victorian researcher John Tyndall seemed a man for all sciences. He discovered the greenhouse effect and why the sky is blue, and as a public intellectual, hobnobbed with physicists Michael Faraday and Hermann von Helmholtz, and poet Alfred Tennyson. This splendid monument of a biography by Roland Jackson tracks Tyndall’s rise from rural Ireland to laboratorial glory days in Britain and Europe. The experimentalist’s obscurity now, Jackson avers, may be down in part to his death in 1893: he just missed the era of relativity and the quantum.

Book jacket 'Microbia'


Eugenia Bone Rodale (2018)

At the age of 55, journalist Eugenia Bone returned to university to take a microbiology course, reasoning that “humility is the entry point for studying nature”. The microbial matrix of life came into focus. Bone’s is an exquisitely observant, often amusing voyage from the origins of life to antibiotic resistance, punctuated by scientific revelations. (The compound geosmin, produced by Streptomyces bacteria, gives soil its sweet smell; bacteria nucleate rain; a quadrillion microbes pack part of a cow’s stomach.) The devil’s in the detail, Bone finds, but what enchants is the connectivity of this ‘hidden’ ocean.

Book jacket 'Elastic'

Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World

Leonard Mlodinow Pantheon (2018)

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow revels in the neuroscientific. Here he extends his explorations with an in-depth study of agile creative thinking in a hectic age. Among the psychological factors Mlodinow isolates are a yen for novelty, and the capacity to reconcile diverse ideas. He plunges deep into the human brain, marshalling compelling research both on brain basics and on outlier issues such as mental blocks. Perhaps most gripping is his take on the “default network” — the brain structures that govern richly creative activities such as daydreaming, the “dialogue we have with ourselves”.

Book jacket 'Wild Moms'

Wild Moms

Carin Bondar Pegasus (2018)

Biologist and broadcaster Carin Bondar’s tour of the vagaries of motherhood in the animal kingdom is a thrills-and-spills survey, from brood parasitism to cooperative breeding. The diversity of evolutionary solutions to maternality is mind-bending. We learn, for instance, how baby koalas ingest their mothers’ faeces to inoculate their gut microbiomes, and that female gastric-brooding frogs vomited up their froglets. Ultimately, however, this is less a synthesized narrative than a biological litany.

Nature 555, 583 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-03792-3
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