The wild side of discovery, a history of information warfare, and the immune system uncovered: Books in brief

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

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The cover of Loonshots


Safi Bahcall St Martin’s (2019)

History is riddled with seemingly crackpot ideas that led to massive breakthroughs. How can we ensure that such “loonshots” are nurtured? In this witty, invigorating exploration of human behaviour and discovery, physicist and biotechnology entrepreneur Safi Bahcall argues that it’s all about “phase transitions”: group dynamics that govern how a team snaps from dismissing to embracing a new concept. Drawing on examples from traffic jams to the James Bond film franchise, Bahcall shows how structure, size and communication govern groups’ capacity to “engineer serendipity”.

The cover of The Shape of a Life

The Shape of a Life

Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis Yale University Press (2019)

For decades, mathematician Shing-Tung Yau — a winner of the 1982 Fields Medal — has been central to the cross-fertilization between modern mathematics and physics. His work in geometry, for instance, underlies much of string theory. This volume, co-authored with science writer Steve Nadis, is an intimate account of Yau’s life, and includes frank responses to his critics. It ends with a twist: Yau does not believe that the Poincaré conjecture — the most important question in topology in the twenty-first century — has truly been settled.

The cover of News From Germany

News from Germany

Heidi J. S. Tworek Harvard University Press (2019)

This riveting technological chronicle dispels two myths: that the digital era spawned information warfare, and that twentieth-century global communications was largely Anglo-American. From 1900 to 1945, reveals historian Heidi Tworek, Germany strove mightily to achieve world power through news agencies, spoken radio and wireless, urged on by figures from Weimar Republic foreign minister Gustav Stresemann to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. A chillingly timely cautionary tale, demonstrating that once elites destroy democratic institutions, a free press cannot prevent further disintegration.

The cover of Horizon


Barry Lopez Knopf (2019)

Subtle, monumental, rich, spare: this opus by acclaimed writer Barry Lopez contains and transcends contradictions. A reflection on journeys with researchers, into history and across continents, it uses six sites as loci for scientific and philosophical musings, as Lopez sorts sea-floor organisms in Antarctica, sifts soils with archaeologists in the High Arctic, hunts hominin remains in Kenya with palaeontologist Kamoya Kimeu and contemplates the “cultural detonation” of Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia. Above all, he asks what, amid existential crises, we seek beyond the horizon’s line.

The cover of An Elegant Defense

An Elegant Defense

Matt Richtel William Morrow (2019)

The immune system is less war machine than peacekeeping force, seeing off viral and bacterial disruption to keep the body safe. But what if that balance shifts? Award-winning reporter Matt Richtel examines the scientific and human realities of immune anomaly through four case studies. Jason Greenstein, for instance, struggled with terminal Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his immune system ‘duped’ by cancer. Through these harrowing accounts, Richtel interweaves the research history — a relay race involving immunologists Élie Metchnikoff, Peter Medawar and Anthony Fauci, among others.

Nature 567, 173 (2019)

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