Psychedelic psychiatry, breast cancer, and a paean to the emperor penguin: Books in brief

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

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The Body

Bill Bryson Doubleday (2019)

From skin to gut, the human body is a realm of wonder, and Bill Bryson’s tome explores it to its thrumming depths. The book bristles with data such as our allotment of cells (37.2 trillion) or daily faeces production (200 grams), but the star turns are Bryson’s wry forays into the histories of neuroscience, genetics, anatomy and immunology. Cue visceral gems such as diarist Samuel Pepys’s gruesome bladder-stone surgery, and US physician Chevalier Quixote Jackson’s retrieval of thousands of ingested items (including miniature binoculars and a poker chip) over his 75-year career.

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Kate Pickert Little, Brown Spark (2019)

Part of Kate Pickert’s beat as a health-care journalist was breast cancer. In 2014, she became one of 300,000 US women diagnosed with the condition that year, and set out to recontextualize its convoluted history. She probes the brutal legacy of controversial mastectomy pioneer William Halsted, the discovery of cancer drug Taxol (paclitaxel) and debates over screening. She tours pharmaceuticals giant Genentech, interviews researchers such as Dennis Slamon and sits in on breast-reconstruction surgery. And she recounts her own medical journey with impressive aplomb. Balanced, cogent and eye-opening.

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Break on Through

Lucas Richert MIT Press (2019)

Sixty years ago, amid socio-economic stresses and cultural convulsions, US psychiatry went through a paradigm shift: radical approaches to therapy, newly approved pharmaceuticals and experimentation with hallucinogens proliferated. In this episodic narrative, historian of pharmacy Lucas Richert picks through the explosive developments alongside the multitude of figures involved, such as psychologist Abraham Maslow, anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing, ex-patient and activist Judi Chamberlin and researcher Sanford M. Unger, who studied the use of LSD in psychotherapy.

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The Art of Innovation

Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth Bantam (2019)

This fascinating compilation of 20 “brief yet rich” historical moments when art and science commingled draws on a BBC Radio 4 series by Ian Blatchford and Tilly Blyth. Director and principal curator at London’s Science Museum, respectively, they gaze back over 250 years of crossover creativity. Here are landscape painter John Constable “skying” in the 1820s, painting cloudscapes and jotting down meteorological data; the mind-boggling motion photography of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey; and the mathematical models that inspired sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

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My Penguin Year

Lindsay McCrae Hodder & Stoughton (2019)

In December 2016, Lindsay McCrae set out for Antarctica as director of photography for the BBC television series Dynasties, narrated by David Attenborough. Amid ice, whales, petrels, seals and vast shoals of fish, McCrae followed thousands of emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) for nearly a year. His remarkable memoir is rich in the technological and logistical challenges of filming in extreme conditions. But most gripping are his fine-tuned observations of these beautiful metre-high birds, which must survive and raise their young in temperatures as low as −60 °C.

Nature 574, 175 (2019)

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