BOOKS AND ARTS

The shadow side of sport, cosmic cataclysms, and human culture underground: Books in brief

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

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The Uninhabitable Earth

David Wallace-Wells Tim Duggan (2019)

Out of fear, faith in technology or lack of interest, millions of us tell ourselves decontextualized fictions about climate change. So declares journalist David Wallace-Wells in this powerfully argued polemic, drawing on research into current and near-future impacts. Wallace-Wells examines cases of systems crises from heatwaves to sea-level rise; considers pandemics, economic collapse and conflict in context; and probes the miasma around climate, from metaphorical framings to the politics of consumption. A masterly analysis of why — with a world of solutions — we choose doom.

Good to Go

Christie Aschwanden W. W. Norton (2019)

In the tortuously complex world of sport, stunning athletic performance is only half the story. The shadow side, reveals science writer Christie Aschwanden, is recovery from all that muscle-popping, nerve-straining effort. Aschwanden investigates claims for recovery “modalities” such as ice baths, electrical stimulation and even beer — a journey that also takes her through byways such as hyponatraemia (water intoxication), ‘nutrient timing’, blood biomarkers to track training impacts, and more. Celebrity solutions figure, too, including American footballer Tom Brady’s infrared pyjamas.

Earth-Shattering

Bob Berman Little, Brown (2019)

It’s fairly peaceful out there in the “celestial acreage”, notes astronomer Bob Berman: among the trillions of stars in the visible Universe, the lifespans of more than 90% are relatively predictable. But what about the cataclysms that rattle cosmic neighbourhoods? In this gripping primer, Berman encapsulates meltdowns and mayhem, from the ur-event of the Big Bang to γ-ray bursts from the neutron stars known as magnetars. He ventures, too, into nuclear disasters, pandemics and a monumental event 4 billion years hence, when the galaxy Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way.

Underground

Will Hunt Simon & Schuster (2019)

Anthropology goes underground in Will Hunt’s unclassifiably brilliant foray into human cultures beneath the skin of city streets and rural scapes. Hunt turns subterranean ethnographer in far-flung places, meeting NASA astrobiologists in South Dakota caves, the ochre-mining Wajarri people of Australia, French aristocrats who steward 14,000-year-old clay sculptures deep under the Pyrenees, and intrepid explorers of subways, steam vents and sewers. Invoking Surrealist poet Paul Éluard (“There is another world, but it is in this one”), Hunt leads us into illuminating depths and darkness.

The Making of You

Katharina Vestre (transl. Matt Bagguley) Wellcome Collection (2019)

Few dramas are as fascinating as the one that plays out in the human womb. Embryologist Katharina Vestre’s engrossing primer gives us the script, from the harrowing journey of sperm towards egg, to that first gulp of air in the dazzle outside. Vestre intertwines snippets of genetic and embryological history into her narrative, and has the knack of sparking wonder at developmental details — whether the “tiny firework” of cell division, the inner wanderings of nerve fibres, the cartilage prototype skeleton we have at week seven, or the gradual creep of ears up the neck.

Nature 566, 179 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00520-3

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