How to age well, a culinary journey, and why you’re not as gullible as you thought: Books in brief

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

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Not Born Yesterday

Hugo Mercier Princeton Univ. Press (2019)

We’re a hard species to dupe, argues cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier in this persuasive study on the science of belief. Drawing on research and historical case studies from the French Revolution to the Nazis, Mercier demonstrates that we have powerful cognitive mechanisms that enable us to weigh up a range of cues. Thus governmental propaganda succeeds by riding on existing opinion, not changing it. And vigilance, not credulity, seems to make false rumours (so often about threats) stick. A bracing book that might make you less gullible about gullibility.

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The Shenzhen Experiment

Juan Du Harvard Univ. Press (2020)

Just 40 years after then-Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping proposed to make Shenzhen a special economic zone, it has become a conurbation of 20 million, a technology hub and a symbol of China’s economic transformation. But as urban planner Juan Du shows in this deep dive of a history, the ‘instant city’ narrative is a myth. Sweeping aside slick origin stories, Du reveals a reality in which Shenzhen’s prosperity is driven by oyster fishers, vibrant night markets and the aspirations of millions, not just by the policymakers of Beijing.

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Successful Aging

Daniel J. Levitin Dutton (2020)

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin reveals the ‘dreaded’ age of 60 to be a developmental stage with specific advantages, and a launchpad for productive elderhood. Looking in turn at the latest neuroscience, behavioural studies and findings on longevity and cognitive enhancement, Levitin delves into the multiple-trace theory of memory, the ageing microbiome, fats and the brain, the impacts of neural implants, and the joys of non-retirement. A clear-eyed, insightful overview of the neurophysiological healthspan.

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Cook, Taste, Learn

Guy Crosby Columbia Univ. Press (2019)

This chronology of culinary science was part-inspired, nutritionist Guy Crosby tells us, by primatologist Richard Wrangham’s theories on how fire and cooking influenced human evolution. Those are contested. Nevertheless, Crosby’s historical tour of kitchen physics and chemistry is a sprightly delight. Here are invitations to peer into the architecture of “optimally kneaded dough”, goggle at the oldest known recipe (on a 3,750-year-old clay tablet from Babylonia), wonder at a seventeenth-century pressure cooker and contemplate the terroir of Vidalia onions.

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The True Creator of Everything

Miguel Nicolelis Yale Univ. Press (2020)

The human brain, contends neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, is a peerless “organic computing device” that has authored a singular cosmos: human culture, from cave art to robotics. Within a framework he dubs relativistic brain theory, Nicolelis launches a mind-bending journey through neurological evolution, electromagnetism in relation to the brain, brain–machine interfaces and beyond. He warns, however, that our compulsion to monetize, and our addiction to “digital logic”, jeopardize our future.

Nature 577, 165 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03958-7

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