BOOKS AND ARTS

Paying a visit to Pluto, how to tell causation from correlation, and the magic of milk: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Chasing New Horizons'

Chasing New Horizons

Alan Stern and David Grinspoon Picador (2018)

It is the farthest-flung planetary mission yet. In July 2015, NASA spacecraft New Horizons zipped past the Pluto system, 5 billion kilometres from Earth, at a cool 52,000 kilometres an hour. The stunning portraits it snapped range from Pluto’s heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio and towering spires of methane ice to its zoo of moons. Here, mission leader Alan Stern and astrobiologist David Grinspoon trace decades of painstaking preparation, and look to the craft’s future in the Kuiper belt and beyond — possibly heading into interstellar space. An exhilarating trek into the “wild black yonder”.

Book jacket 'Book of Why'

The Book of Why

Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie Basic (2018)

“Correlation is not causation.” That scientific refrain has had social consequences — not least, the long debate over links between tobacco and lung cancer. Judea Pearl proposes a radical mathematical solution. A prominent researcher in artificial intelligence (AI), Pearl teams up with writer Dana Mackenzie to explore the science of causation, now bearing fruit in biology, medicine, social science and AI through tools such as the “causal inference engine”. The inevitably chewy narrative is leavened by the contributions of half-forgotten researchers such as psychologist Barbara Burks.

Book jacket 'Minds Make Societies'

Minds Make Societies

Pascal Boyer Yale University Press (2018)

Why do people believe absurdities, tolerate demagogues and cooperate (or not)? To decipher the complexities of human society, evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer draws from genetics, economics and biology. His incisive investigation of “six problems in search of a new science”, from group conflict to information, thus integrates an impressive range of research and attendant insights. He reveals, for instance, how ethnic strife is fed by a belief that national welfare is a zero-sum game, and why splashy wedding ceremonies cement pair-bonding. An elegant voice in a clamorous field.

Book jacket 'Milk!'

Milk!

Mark Kurlansky Bloomsbury (2018)

Best-selling author Mark Kurlansky follows up Cod (1997) and Salt (2002) with another zestful exploration of one foodstuff — milk — through history and a range of lenses. A human staple for 10,000 years, milk was the first food to be investigated in a modern lab. It is now the most globally regulated. Kurlansky keeps up a cracking pace on a tour that covers classical geographer Strabo griping about the Celts’ milk consumption; the disease-generating dairies of nineteenth-century New York City; lactose intolerance in China; and 126 recipes for everything from ghee to syllabub.

Book jacket 'Atlas of the Lost World'

Atlas of a Lost World

Craig Childs Pantheon (2018)

What was life like for the early humans who poured over the Bering land bridge to North America more than 20,000 years ago? On evidence, beyond brutal terrain and climate shifts, it involved harrowing games of hide-and-seek with colossal fauna such as the short-faced bear Arctodus simus. In this evocative scientific travelogue, Craig Childs enters that time and space, braiding together his treks along prehistoric pathways from Alaska to the south with palaeontological findings from coprolites to mastodon bones, and meetings with remarkable scientists.

Nature 557, 163 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05083-3
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