BOOKS AND ARTS

The sex lives of vegetables, life in a heart beat, and the cold-war engineer who cracked supercomputing

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

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Book jacket 'Primate Change'

Primate Change: How the World We Made Is Remaking Us

Vybarr Cregan-Reid Octopus (2018)

Nature and nurture commingle to fascinating effect in this study of how the environment humans have so thoroughly altered is altering us physiologically. Humanities scholar Vybarr Cregan-Reid ventures from the African forest apes of 20 million years ago to the rise of Homo sapiens and the impacts of successive revolutions — agricultural, industrial, urban and digital — on our anatomy. Our grossly sedentary, technologically dominated, polluted present, he argues, constitutes a collective assault on bodies unevolved to cope, leading to ‘mismatch’ conditions such as myopia and obesity.

Book jacket 'Sex on the Kitchen Table'

Sex on the Kitchen Table

Norman C. Ellstrand University of Chicago Press (2018)

The sex life of an avocado might seem anything but lurid. Geneticist Norman Ellstrand, however, reveals it as a riot of romantic yearning and ‘sex switching’. In his foray into the nexus of food, science and plant reproduction, we enter that alternative universe in which olives and quinces are really vehicles for seeds, the tomato (the ‘love apple’ of yore) is self-fertile and cultivated bananas are female-sterile. You’ll become reacquainted with the pistil, and wonder at the sugar beet’s rise “from a cascade of geopolitical incidents”. Nutrition might never seem the same again.

Book jacket 'Heart'

Heart: A History

Sandeep Jauhar Oneworld (2018)

Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar’s exploration of that marvellous muscle, the heart, meshes cutting-edge science, memoir and history. He pictures a cadaver’s heart as “a squat volcano tipped on its side”. He extols physician William Harvey’s great 1628 treatise On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals. He records the troubled dawn of open-heart surgery, pioneered by experimentalists such as C. Walton Lillehei in the 1950s. And he recounts with raw immediacy his mother’s death from cardiac arrest. A moving narrative echoing to the beat of “this organ, prime mover and citadel”.

Book jacket 'The Cryoton Files'

The Cryotron Files

Iain Dey and Douglas Buck Icon (2018)

This extraordinary chapter in the annals of cold-war science is both thrilleresque and tragic. At its centre is Dudley Buck, a gifted electrical engineer and US government agent whose prototype microchip, the Cryotron, was key to a covert scheme to create the first supercomputers. As journalist Iain Dey and Buck’s son Douglas reveal, Buck and his colleague Louis Ridenour, a physicist, died suddenly in 1959, after a visit from high-level Soviet researchers. Any discussion of Soviet contact-poison hits is speculative; what is not is Buck’s substantial contribution to modern computer science.

Book jacket 'Poached'

Poached

Rachel Love Nuwer Dacapo (2018)

From the hacked corpses of bull elephants in Botswana to fast-declining pangolin populations, wildlife trafficking is an ongoing threat to conservation gains. Rachel Nuwer, a conservation biologist turned science journalist, traces at first hand the front lines across the globe in her hard-hitting, wince-inducing report. Examining the forces driving demand, the trade itself and countermeasures, she takes us from Africa’s killing fields to the corridors of regulatory behemoths, and finds gleams of hope in Chad’s National Elephant Action Plan and pangolin rescue efforts in Vietnam.

Nature 561, 463 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06785-4

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