Spontaneous cures, seeing the stars, and secrets of invisible aircraft: Books in brief

Andrew Robinson reviews five of the week’s best science picks.

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Jeffrey Rediger Flatiron (2020)

An experienced physician who is also a skilled, driven and compassionate writer is a winning combination. This pioneering book by psychiatrist Jeffrey Rediger analyses unexplained spontaneous recoveries from potentially fatal medical conditions, including cancer. From interviewing patients over nearly two decades, Rediger concludes that each recovery was “unique” and only partially explicable, but that all provide evidence of “a powerful link” between our identities and our immune systems.

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Disaster by Choice

Ilan Kelman Oxford Univ. Press (2020)

Human choices cause disasters, but can also prevent them, argues Ilan Kelman in this grimly informative history. A specialist in disasters and health, he surveys earthquakes, epidemics, floods and more in a range of countries. Thus, in 2010, a magnitude-7.1 earthquake near Christchurch, New Zealand, caused not a single death. The same year, a magnitude-7.0 quake in Haiti caused at least 100,000 fatalities and a cholera outbreak — because of poor buildings and health care. Scientific foresight and political will are always key to resilience.

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Under the Stars

Matt Gaw Elliott & Thompson (2020)

The Milky Way is invisible to 77% of today’s UK population because of artificial light, notes naturalist and journalist Matt Gaw: “Many adults and children, my own included, have never seen it.” Such thoughts inspired this poetically written but scientifically grounded study of darkness and its effect on humans and wildlife. Gaw describes night wanderings on English beaches, across Dartmoor and in central London. On the Scottish island Coll, a Dark Sky Community without a single street light, his children were entranced by the stars.

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Peter Westwick Oxford Univ. Press (2020)

In 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned in his last address as US president that the “military–industrial complex” must be checked for the sake of “security and liberty”. Historian Peter Westwick is more positive in his incisive narrative of the top-secret 1970s invention and construction of the stealth plane F-117. Nearly invisible to Soviet-designed radar, it was used to crucial effect in the 1991 Gulf War. Westwick argues that it offered an alternative to nuclear weapons, but admits that “to defend American liberties, aerospace engineers gave up civil liberties”.

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Beyond Global Warming

Syukuro Manabe & Anthony J. Broccoli Princeton Univ. Press (2020)

The first global climate model, developed in 1896 by chemist Svante Arrhenius, included the warming effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In the 1960s, meteorologist Syukuro Manabe pioneered computer simulation of climate change. Manabe’s book written with atmospheric scientist Anthony Broccoli has evolved from his lecture notes, with chapters on, for example, general circulation models. Although technical, it should prove useful to those wishing to understand global warming’s future impact.

Nature 578, 357 (2020)

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