Ebola from the front lines, US aviation’s female high-fliers, and a history of science journals: Books in brief

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

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Book jacket 'The Scientific Journal'

The Scientific Journal

Alex Csiszar Univ. Chicago Press (2018)

Journals form the canon of scientific knowledge. But how, asks historian Alex Csiszar, did it come to bear “so much epistemic weight”? Focusing mainly on France and Britain during the turbulent nineteenth century, he unpicks the knotted roots of journals from the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions to Annales des sciences naturelles, and touches on the role of luminaries such as Nature’s first editor, Norman Lockyer. Amid fresh convulsions in scholarly publishing, much here resonates — not least, how commercial interests have shaped science communication almost from the start.

Book jacket 'Getting to Zero'

Getting to Zero

Sinéad Walsh and Oliver Johnson Zed (2018)

In 2014, as West Africa’s Ebola crisis exploded, 28-year-old physician Oliver Johnson was co-running the isolation unit in Sierra Leone’s main hospital; Sinéad Walsh was Irish ambassador to the country and head of Irish Aid. Their in-depth memoir enshrines distinct perspectives on the front line of a fraught epidemic, to offer a nuanced analysis: we see both the Herculean efforts on the ground, and the humanitarian response, warts and all (see also P. Piot Nature 537, 484–485; 2016). Among the lessons learnt, the need to respect local ‘citizen medics’ and collaborate with governments is pure gold.

Book jacket 'Reader, Come Home'

Reader, Come Home

Maryanne Wolf Harper (2018)

This rich study by cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf tackles an urgent question: how do digital devices affect the reading brain? Wolf explores the “cognitive strata below the surface of words”, the demotivation of children saturated in on-screen stimulation, and the power of ‘deep reading’ and challenging texts in building nous and ethical responses such as empathy. She advocates “biliteracy” — teaching children first to read physical books (reinforcing the brain’s reading circuit through concrete experience), then to code and use screens effectively. An antidote for today’s critical-thinking deficit.

Book jacket 'Fly Girls'

Fly Girls

Keith O’Brien Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2018)

Shredded wings, broken propellers, stalled engines: in the 1920s, aviation was insanely risky. Undeterred, a select cadre of women embraced US aeroplane racing. In this engrossing mix of group biography and technology history, Keith O’Brien follows the lives of five: Amelia Earhart, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thaden. Earhart became a celebrity before disappearing over the Pacific Ocean; others found their prowess no match for sexism. The brilliant record-breaker Nichols, for instance, never flew professionally after the Second World War, and killed herself in 1960.

Book jacket 'Early Rock Art of the American West'

Early Rock Art of the American West

Ekkehart Malotki and Ellen Dissanayake Univ. Washington Press (2018)

The ancient geometric petroglyphs and pictographs of the American West — pecked into or painted on boulders and canyon walls — are beautiful enigmas. In this fascinating volume, linguist Ekkehart Malotki and scholar Ellen Dissanayake parse images created up to 15,000 years ago by Palaeoamericans from Arizona to Idaho, speculating about their origins and functions. Alongside Malotki’s stunning photographs of some 200 examples, the authors recontextualize the relics as products of ritualistic activity (‘artification’) rather than symbolic artworks.

Nature 560, 27 (2018)

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