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A lively history of smell, practical solutions for climate change, and big cats on the prowl: Books in brief

One book cover


Robert Muchembled (transl. Susan Pickford) Polity (2020)

In 2014, a paper based on experiments with 26 people claimed that humans can discriminate between more than one trillion olfactory stimuli. Its mathematical model was heavily criticized; it’s more likely, as French historian Robert Muchembled says, that smell is “the only one of our senses to be acquired from experience”. Thus, European children take around five years to feel disgust at their own excrement. With pungent examples, this lively history charts the transformation of smells from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century.

One book cover

Tasting Qualities

Sarah Besky Univ. California Press (2020)

The Indian prime minister projects himself as the son of a railway-station tea-seller; tea is part of Indian identity. Yet the tea served there for mass consumption since the 1950s is shaped by machinery into tiny balls reminiscent of coffee granules, rather than the traditional Indian twists of hand-picked leaves — one of many intriguing observations by anthropologist Sarah Besky, from extensive experience of plantations and auction rooms. Her nuanced study of Indian tea, although overly academic, is a refreshing brew of botany, business and culture.

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Fire in Paradise

Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano W. W. Norton (2020)

The 2018 Camp Fire that almost destroyed the town of Paradise in northern California, killing at least 85 people, has become “a poster child for the climate crisis”, note journalists Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano. Their account, based on interviews with residents, firefighters and academics, is horrendous, especially the section ‘Hell’, describing the fire minute by searing minute. It confirms how humans, not nature, are responsible for disasters — a spark from an electricity tower, well past its replacement date, triggered the inferno.

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The 100% Solution

Solomon Goldstein-Rose Melville House (2020)

Solomon Goldstein-Rose was elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 2016, aged 22, on a platform focused on climate change. This keenly practical prospectus targets the 2020 US national elections. But he observes that any political will in industrialized countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions can never overcome “basic economic realities” in developing countries, which produce two-thirds of global emissions. So industrialized countries, responsible for global warming, must also bear the brunt of reducing emissions.

One book cover

On the Prowl

Mark Hallett and John M. Harris Columbia Univ. Press (2020)

Among the copious illustrations in this erudite history of big cats by naturalists Mark Hallett and John Harris is a photograph of a US cave floor showing beautifully preserved footprints of a jaguar that took its prey underground, became disoriented and died tens of thousands of years ago. An illustration by Hallett shows a resting pride of hungry, fly-ridden Asiatic lions in India — the remainder of a population that once ranged from western Asia to the Mediterranean. The authors argue for renewed efforts to preserve endangered carnivores.

Nature 579, 491 (2020)



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