Data judo, the interconnected self, and the dystopia in Silicon Valley: Books in brief

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

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Dark Data David J. Hand Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

We are deluged with billions of bytes of data, yet much crucial information goes unseen and unreported. So reveals statistician David Hand in this penetrating study of missing (‘dark’) data and its impacts on decisions — skewing stats, enabling fraud, embedding inequity and triggering preventable catastrophes. Advocating “data science judo”, Hand offers expert training, from recognizing when facts are being cherry-picked to designing randomized trials. A book illuminating shadowed corners in science, medicine and policy.

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The Self Delusion Tom Oliver Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2020)

Humans are less discrete entities than mash-ups of microbiota and shifting beliefs, declares ecologist Tom Oliver in this rich, intriguing book. We are, he shows, so interfused with the environment that all life might be seen as a web of genes, and all minds a web of memes. Oliver reframes the self as a fleeting union of molecules, a target for manipulation by parasites, a cooperative co-creator who is also destroying the biosphere. But by recognizing our connectedness, he argues, we enable needed societal and environmental change.

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Uncanny Valley Anna Wiener Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020)

Start-ups have long been seen as a geek-driven, idealistic antidote to corporate culture. Anna Wiener’s unsettling memoir may muddy that image. In 2013, a 20-something Wiener was drawn to the digital economy of California’s Silicon Valley. Soon enough she recognized it as a reckless, male-dominated world of barely regulated surveillance. She witnessed the boom in online abuse and political trolling from the inside, and the growing inequity in San Francisco fuelled by venture capitalists. An acute eye on a dystopia in the making.

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Immortality, Inc. Chip Walter National Geographic (2020)

Extreme longevity might seem a seductive concept to some. To a handful of prominent researchers, it’s an experimental goal. Venturing into that rarefied world, journalist Chip Walter interviewed stars such as biotechnologist J. Craig Venter and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. Their eventful stories are woven through Walter’s tour of biotech research centres Calico and Celularity, and fields from cryopreservation to regeneration. Results remain broadly inconclusive, but this witty look at ‘curing’ death is worth the ride.

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Exploding Stars and Invisible Planets Fred Watson Columbia Univ. Press (2020)

Astronomer Fred Watson is a science communicator par excellence. Here, with infectious enthusiasm, he plunges the reader into the science on sky-watching and space observation. Kicking off with a nuanced discussion of twilight — covering everything from crepuscular rays to the ‘green flash’ — he moves on to meteor showers, the potential contamination of the Solar System’s ice moons by earthly microbes, the mystery of a hypothesized Planet Nine and the real origins of the Moon.

Nature 577, 313 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00054-z

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