The paradox of human nature, our obsession with the skies, and the realities of transplant surgery: Books in brief

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

Book jacket 'The Goodness Paradox'

The Goodness Paradox

Richard Wrangham Profile (2019)

Homo sapiens see-saws endlessly between tolerance and aggression. To parse our paradoxical nature, primatologist Richard Wrangham marshals gripping research in genetics, neuroscience, history and beyond. His lucid, measured study ranges over types of aggression, the evolution of moral values, the age-old problem of tyrants, and war’s “coalitional impunity”. The propensity for proactive violence, he argues — forged by self-domestication, language and genetic selection — marks out our primarily peaceful species. We uniquely bend cooperation to ends both cruel and compassionate.

Book jacket 'Our Universe'

Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide

Jo Dunkley Pelican (2019)

From prehistoric bones etched with phases of the Moon to today’s panoply of missions and telescopes, skywatching is a human obsession; this luminous guide to the cosmos encapsulates myriad discoveries. Astrophysicist Jo Dunkley swoops from Earth to the observable limits, then explores stellar life cycles, dark matter, cosmic evolution and the soup-to-nuts history of the Universe. No less a thrill are her accounts of tenth-century Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, twentieth- and twenty-first-century researchers Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Vera Rubin, and many more.

Book jacket 'The Royal Society'

The Royal Society

Adrian Tinniswood Head of Zeus (2019)

In 1660, 12 men met in London with the aim of advancing “various parts of learning”. Among them were experimentalist Robert Boyle and anatomist, astronomer and budding architect Christopher Wren. This, in essence, was the genesis of the Royal Society, chartered in 1662 and soon Britain’s pre-eminent scientific body. Historian Adrian Tinniswood explores highlights, from the establishment of the journal Philosophical Transactions to the roll-call of illustrious presidents and the advent, in 1945, of biochemist Marjory Stephenson and crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale as the first female Fellows.

Book jacket 'When Death Becomes Life'

When Death Becomes Life

Joshua D. Mezrich Harper (2019)

Transplant surgeons lead liminal lives, working at a blurred boundary between death and life. Joshua Mezrich’s no-holds-barred narrative plunges us into those dual realities, laying bare both donor-organ procurement — all iced livers, explosions of blood and skin “harvesting” — and the medical and emotional journeys of recipients. Woven through is the story of his own training and the field’s halting advance under dogged luminaries such as Roy Calne. A visceral tale of hearts and bones, surgical bravura and the “web of transplantation” that binds people who might never meet.

Book jacket 'Concrete'

Concrete: Case Studies in Conservation Practice

Eds Catherine Croft and Susan Macdonald Getty (2019)

Flexible, dynamic and ubiquitous, concrete is a signature material of modernist architecture. That heritage also poses unique conservation challenges. Specialists Catherine Croft and Susan Macdonald cover 14 such projects in this edited compilation, from the 1928–30 listening mirrors (early-warning acoustic devices to detect enemy aircraft) in Kent, UK, to Wallace Harrison’s iconic 1964 New York Hall of Science. A technical, yet fascinating exploration of this collision of science and material culture.

Nature 565, 293 (2019)

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