Environmental racism, the world as it isn’t, and a guided tour of the planets: Books in brief

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

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A Terrible Thing to Waste

Harriet A. Washington Little, Brown Spark (2019)

Exposure to lead, mercury and other toxins poses big risks to public health and neural development. And it disproportionately affects people of colour, notably in the United States, where 68% of African Americans (compared with 56% of white people) live within 48 kilometres of a coal-fired power plant. Medical historian Harriet Washington examines how such ‘environmental racism’ holds back lives. Her penetrating study ranges widely over pollutants, pathogens and prenatal care, and lays out pragmatic strategies for countering the malign official neglect underpinning this structural injustice.

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The Case Against Reality

Donald Hoffman W. W. Norton (2019)

We’ve been using the wrong language to describe objective reality, asserts cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. Teapots, trees and speeding cars are not objects in space and time. They are instead akin to icons on a 3D computer desktop — perceptions we need to take “seriously, but not literally”. Hoffman makes his case, predicated on evolutionary fitness rather than metaphysical truth, by way of research into consciousness and the perception of beauty, theories on the doomed nature of space-time, and more. Is reality virtual? It’s a question made even more interesting by this book.

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On the Life of Galileo

Edited by Stefano Gattei Princeton University Press (2019)

“I was the one who broke Heaven open/before the Sun burned my eyes.” That lyrical portrait of Galileo Galilei (from Primo Levi’s 1984 poem ‘Sidereus Nuncius’) opens this fine collected volume of biographies of the astronomer. Works by Galileo’s seventeenth-century contemporaries, translated by Stefano Gattei, reveal at first hand the making of his myth in a tumultuous era. Among the eulogies and critiques are the ‘Historical Account’ by mathematician Vincenzo Viviani, Galileo’s last pupil, and a poem by Maffeo Barberini, who later, as Pope Urban VIII, ordered Galileo’s 1633 heresy trial.

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The Bastard Brigade

Sam Kean Little, Brown (2019)

Among the Manhattan Project’s shadowy remits was the Alsos mission to halt Nazi efforts to build a bomb. Now, Sam Kean’s thrilleresque science history gives it top billing. Amid air strikes and commando raids, we meet the unit’s scientists and spies, such as quantum pioneer Samuel Goudsmit (see D. Castelvecchi Nature 563, 320–321; 2018) and key German players Werner Heisenberg and Otto Hahn. Kean adds spark by focusing on the Allied effort and less familiar faces in the fray, from spy and baseball player Moe Berg to Nobel-prizewinning chemist Irène Joliot-Curie.

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The Secret Lives of Planets

Paul Murdin Hodder & Stoughton (2019)

In this succinct primer on planetary science, astronomer Paul Murdin reminds us that the seemingly static Solar System is a hotbed of upheaval, shaping fascinating worlds for 4 billion years. Along with our cosmic neighbourhood’s eight planets, Murdin surveys dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres, and a selection of asteroids, meteoroids and satellites. We learn that Venus is festooned with clouds of sulfuric acid; that Saturn’s more than 60 moons ‘shepherd’ the particles in its rings; and that one of those moons, Enceladus, spits gas that falls back to its surface as snow. A deft, frequently dramatic tour.

Nature 572, 31 (2019)

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