The triumph of random testing, a quest for ancient wine, and a history of mirages: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'X Club'

The X Club

Ruth Barton University of Chicago Press (2018)

For decades in the late 1800s, nine scientific luminaries (among them biologist Thomas Henry Huxley and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker) dined together as members of the ‘X Club’. This socio-economically diverse group, formed in part to promote Charles Darwin’s achievements, is a telling case study in the dynamics of Victorian class and science. Historian Ruth Barton’s magisterial chronicle traces the careers of the “X-men” and their agile promotion of science; Huxley, in particular, emerges vividly as wily, belligerent, and obstructive to women entering science.

Book jacket 'Fallout'


Fred Pearce Beacon (2018)

Science writer Fred Pearce casts a cool and measured eye on an explosive legacy: the atomic age. Launched by Winston Churchill’s nuclear ambitions (realized by the US Manhattan Project), this era lingers on in plutonium stockpiles, arsenals and ageing power plants. Pearce roams with intent from Sellafield, “Britain’s brooding nuclear nightmare”, to radioactive steppes in Kazakhstan, blighted by 619 atomic tests in the 1950s. His nuanced conclusion is that, together, alarmist protestors and a secretive nuclear industry create a different sort of fallout: the spread of disinformation and fear.

Book jacket 'Randomistas


Andrew Leigh Yale University Press (2018)

Randomized testing, economist Andrew Leigh reminds us, has vanquished scurvy, improved wildfire response — and proved key to better feedback loops in medicine and crime prevention. The trove of case studies in his insightful study includes the 1960s Perry Preschool Project, which exposed the long-term positive impact of early education among African American children living in poverty. Leigh also explores the work of pioneering ‘randomistas’ such as social-policy expert Judith Gueron, and outlines handy guidelines on aspects of randomized testing, such as sample splitting and ethical oversight.

Book jacket 'Tasting the Past'

Tasting the Past

Kevin Begos Algonquin (2018)

If you can tell Sauvignon blanc from Sémillon, you might feel that you ‘know’ wine. Science journalist Kevin Begos blows that idea to smithereens. He travelled from the Caucasus Mountains to Israel and beyond, and riffled through archives, to unearth ancient ‘founder’ grape varieties. En route, he consults archaeobiologist Patrick McGovern and grape geneticist Shivi Drori; reads papers on the DNA of “wild yeasts that live symbiotically with wasps”; and contemplates the oldest grape fossil found. A book that froths with data on half-forgotten vines, from Hamdani to Gros Manseng.

Book jacket 'Waterless Sea'

The Waterless Sea: A Curious History of Mirages

Christopher Pinney Reaktion (2018)

The illusory seas observed in sere deserts are not the only form of mirage, notes Christopher Pinney in this alluring tour of the phenomenon in science and culture. Created by light refracting as it moves through atmospheric regions with differing temperatures, mirages can also appear as imposing and mysterious ‘castles in the air’. Pinney ranges from the old Japanese belief that these “phantom paradises” were exhaled by clam monsters, to an 1898 Nature report detailing mirage effects on flagstone pavements. A paean to a sublime apparition, “real, but not true”.

Nature 557, 635 (2018)

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