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Inventing Tomorrow

Sarah Cole Columbia University Press (2019)

H. G. Wells was, asserts scholar Sarah Cole, a pioneer adept at “rescaling the cosmos and humanity’s place in it”. He straddled the border between science and literature, but not all his complexities were benign: he both repudiated racism and for some time shamefully ascribed to ideas on eugenics. Cole adroitly captures Wells, from his mould-breaking books (such as the 1895 science-fiction classic The Time Machine and 1920 Outline of History) to his unlikely intellectual kinship with subtle modernists such as Virginia Woolf.

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Scatterbrain

Henning Beck Greystone (2019)

The human brain at work, notes neuroscientist Henning Beck, is sloppy — and that is precisely what makes us creative powerhouses. Beck’s coolly amusing narrative takes us through forgetting, pigeon-holing, distraction and deep into creativity. He explores how idle wool-gathering is more conducive to creativity than is ‘efficient’ thinking, and the uncannily similar way in which true and false memories are generated in the brain. His is a hopeful message, ultimately. If we don’t err, we don’t change. So: “stay fallible”.

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The Queens of Animation

Nathalia Holt Little, Brown (2019)

The early hand-drawn animations of Walt Disney Studios remain a technological wonder. Few know, however, of the company’s female virtuosi, who from the 1930s on injected nuance into characters from Bambi to a panoply of princesses. In her gripping corrective, Nathalia Holt ushers these animators and story developers into the limelight: Bianca Majolie, Sylvia Holland, Retta Scott, Grace Huntington and Mary Blair. Particularly in the early years, Holt shows, they paid a high price to work, forced to battle harassment in mostly male teams.

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Rebel Star

Colin Stuart Michael O’Mara (2019)

This compelling portrait of the Sun packs in facts while speculating on gaps in our knowledge. Astronomy journalist Colin Stuart traces the arc of discovery from the fourth-century bc heliocentricism of Aristarchus of Samos through solar spectroscopy, star formation and nuclear fusion, the “epic journey” of sunlight to Earth and more. The Sun is both bountiful and belligerent, he reminds. Solar power could make 87% of countries energy self-sufficient — but the next big solar storm could send our electrical infrastructure into meltdown.

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The First Cell

Azra Raza Basic Books (2019)

Each year, the United States spends US$150 billion on treating cancer. Yet as oncologist Azra Raza notes in this incisive critique-cum-memoir, the treatments remain largely the same. Raza wants to see change: eliminating the first cancer cell rather than “chasing after the last”, which is doable with current technologies. Meanwhile, she braids often-harrowing stories of patients, including her own husband, with insights gleaned from laboratory and literature on this complex, often confounding array of diseases.