Smart-technology spies, a final warning on the environment, and the staggering costs of cancer: Books in brief

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Too Smart

Jathan Sadowski MIT Press (2020)

‘Smart’ technology in hands, homes and cities will “measure, monitor, manage and monetize all aspects of our lives”, shows Jathan Sadowski. One toothbrush, for example, uses sensors to record when, how long and how well users brush their teeth, sending the information to cloud servers owned by the manufacturer or a third party. Users might choose to share such data with their dentists — but surely not with dental insurers without express permission. This hype- and jargon-free warning deserves a wide welcome.

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Rivers of Power

Laurence C. Smith Little, Brown Spark (2020)

Many civilizations began beside great rivers: the Tigris and Euphrates in what’s now Iraq, the Nile in Egypt, the Indus in India and Pakistan, and the Yellow in China. Rivers run through almost all our great cities, notes Earth scientist Laurence Smith in his highly readable history, extolling their fundamental benefits: “access, natural capital, territory, well-being and a means of projecting power”. No wonder we still speak of ‘crossing the Rubicon’, a border river traversed by Julius Caesar’s army in defiance of republican law, triggering the rise of the Roman empire.

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Our Final Warning

Mark Lynas Fourth Estate (2020)

The average global temperature has risen 1 °C above pre-industrial levels. This update to environmental activist Mark Lynas’s 2007 book Six Degrees explores the likely effects of further rises. Its horrifying eloquence derives from its restraint, grounded in research, including a 2019 Nature assessment of future carbon dioxide emissions from existing infrastructure, which leads Lynas to forecast total emissions double those required to keep increases to the 1.5 °C agreed in Paris in 2015. “This really is our final warning,” he concludes.

One book cover


Vinayak K. Prasad Johns Hopkins Univ. Press (2020)

The cost of new cancer treatments in the United States is routinely US$100,000 per year per person; some are more than $400,000 per dose. Oncologist Vinayak Prasad’s insider study analyses how US scientific, industrial and regulatory policies — as well as financial conflicts of interest for physicians — “incentivize the pursuit of marginal or unproven therapies at lofty and unsustainable prices”. Aimed at general readers (including patients), oncology trainees and experts in health-care policy, it informs and disturbs throughout.

One book cover

Other Natures

Clara Bosak-Schroeder Univ. California Press (2020)

US natural-history museums haunt classicist Clara Bosak-Schroeder’s study of how ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus portrayed non-Greek peoples, such as Ethiopians and Persians. She begins with her childhood fascination with a diorama of a crouching African woman holding a pink grub to her mouth, and ends as she adopts a killer whale at Washington’s Whale Museum. Ancient ethnographies, she says, can help people “confront environmental degradation and transform their own relationships to other species”.

Nature 581, 28 (2020)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01317-5


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