A guidebook to cancer, slavery to stupid machines, and the buzz about bees: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'Cancerland'

Cancerland: A Medical Memoir

David Scadden with Michael D’Antonio Thomas Dunne (2018)

Cancer is a foreign country with different norms, asserts David Scadden in this gripping medical memoir. A leading immunologist and oncologist, Scadden (with writer Michael D’Antonio) examines the disease’s recent history through interconnected lenses. Patients’ often harrowing experiences twine through the narrative on research and treatments, from chemotherapy, bone-marrow transplants and lumpectomies to CRISPR and immunotherapies. Scadden’s own eventful life in the lab (not least, his co-founding of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts) is a highlight.

Book jacket 'Artifictional Intelligence'

Artifictional Intelligence

Harry Collins Polity (2018)

Sociologist of science Harry Collins has long focused on gravitational-wave physics (see Nature 542, 28–29; 2017). Here, he shifts gears dramatically to examine pervasive existential fears over artificial intelligence and its perceived threat in the ‘deep learning’ era. Collins probes this idea trenchantly and in considerable detail. Pointing to computers’ inability to factor in social context, master natural language use well enough to pass a severe Turing test, or wield embodied cognition, he argues that the real danger we face is not a takeover by superior computers, but slavery to stupid ones.

Book jacket 'The Promise of the Grand Canyon'

The Promise of the Grand Canyon

John F. Ross Viking (2018)

In 1869, US geologist John Wesley Powell was the first to explore the Grand Canyon and its environs scientifically in an intrepid river descent. Historian John Ross shows how, beyond the derring-do, Powell championed sustainable resource use and was a key architect of federal science. As head of the US Geological Survey, he created an important ecological map charting water scarcity in the West that aimed (but failed) to temper congressional dreams of manifest destiny. He even foresaw the 1930s Dust Bowl crisis. A bold study of an eco-visionary at a watershed moment in US history.

Book jacket 'Buzz'

Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees

Thor Hanson Icon (2018)

For this natural history of the bee, biologist Thor Hanson wings far beyond the hive to explore bee species from “bumbles” to wool carders. Here are the proto-bee of 125 million years ago, evolved from a Cretaceous wasp ancestor; a Chilean desert bee of the genus Geodiscelis, with a grotesquely elongated tongue; and a bumblebee colony’s haphazard array of tiny wax pots. Here, too, are the data on dwindling populations. Apiology, Hanson reminds us, is not just about the scientific buzz: bee behaviour has shed light on human issues from addiction to collective decision-making.

Book jacket 'A Honeybee heart has five openings'

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings

Helen Jukes Scribner (2018)

Joining the bright tide of cultural responses to all things apian (see Nature 521, 29–30; 2015) is this subtly wrought personal journey into the art and science of beekeeping. Helen Jukes evokes both the practical minutiae of the work, and the findings of researchers who have illuminated bee ethology over the centuries, from François Huber to Eva Crane. Laced through are quietly lyrical musings over ‘hive life’ that see Jukes perceiving her colony variously as a “brain with a million synapses”, an inner citadel built by master architects or the fount of an only partly decoded language.

Nature 559, 179 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05652-6
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